On a good night, as many as 19,000 BYU fans fill the Marriott Center.
Those nights have been few and far between lately.
Cougar men’s basketball coach Dave Rose announced his retirement on March 26. Just one day later, BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe and deputy athletic director Brian Santiago stood at midcourt of an empty Marriott Center, waiting to meet with Utah Valley coach Mark Pope to discuss what he could do to fill that arena again.
Pope was flying back from UVU’s loss at South Florida in the College Basketball Invitational when he heard from Holmoe.
According to Pope, that first discussion was a lively one.
“Walking onto the Marriott Center floor, Tom and Brian were both standing there ready to hit me up,” Pope said. “I saw tears come to their eyes and their faces turn red with passion. It was such a huge deal for me to feel how badly they wanted to continue winning and win bigger and bigger. It was really inspiring for me. It’s one of the special things about this place that makes me want to be here so bad.”
On Wednesday, Pope was hired to replace Rose, the end of a long and complicated hiring process that is unique to BYU. Besides meeting with Holmoe and Santiago, Pope also interviewed with school President Kevin Worthen and Advancement Vice President Matt Richardson, who oversees athletics. Ultimately, Pope met with the school’s Board of Trustees in Salt Lake City for final approval.
Making an appearance with “BYU Sports Nation” on Thursday, Pope called the experience — at least emotionally — “a tortuous 10 days.”
Actually, it was 15 days from when Rose retired until Pope was introduced. Taking just over two weeks to hire a basketball coach at BYU might be some kind of record.
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Cougar legend Danny Ainge, now the general manager for the Boston Celtics, was a crucial consultant during the search, and Holmoe and Santiago talked to other former players and coaches as well.
But the two men took on the responsibility of selecting a new coach in the old-school method, which meant no search firms. Since the head coach at BYU must be an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the candidates are pretty well known. Pope quickly emerged as the leader, along with NBA assistant Mark Madsen, Portland State head coach Barret Peery and BYU assistant Quincy Lewis. Those four names were submitted to the Board of Trustees, which consists of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and is headed by church President Russell M. Nelson.
Santiago said the other candidates were afforded the same opportunity to visit on the floor of the Marriott Center.
“We went down the road emotionally with all the candidates,” he said. “We’ve never had such an amazing group of coaches to interview. We’ve never had an NBA assistant or a guy with Division I head coaching experience.”
Back in 2005, Holmoe selected Bronco Mendenhall to replace Gary Crowton as the school’s football coach and, with Santiago’s help, tabbed Rose to succeed Steve Cleveland for basketball. It was Holmoe’s first major hires as director of athletics after Val Hale was fired in the fall of 2005. Holmoe was part of a four-member transitional leadership team that included Santiago, Peter Pilling (now the AD at Columbia) and Janie Penfield. Eventually, Holmoe was chosen to take the reins.
This time, it was just Holmoe and Santiago. They targeted Pope, who had been an assistant under Rose for four seasons.
“The program needed a jolt,” Santiago said. “Mark was going to give us that.”
Pope estimated he spent upwards of 12 hours in discussions with Holmoe and Santiago over the past few weeks.
“If you know Brian, he is so passionate,” Pope said. “Brian can talk, but the problem is that I can talk, too. We had a bunch of late-night rendezvous. We spent a lot of time exploring options.”
Pope also met with BYU’s former head coach last weekend.
“Coach Rose and I had a chance to sit down at the Final Four,” Pope said. “The Final Four is a magical place for coaches. You see all your guys from all over the country. I love Coach Rose so much. I begged him for a chance to learn from him before I came here as an assistant. What Coach did here is beyond extraordinary. He’s been a great friend and mentor. I’m super grateful for him. I’m looking forward to him taking me out to lunch some more.”
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Lee Anne Pope was with her husband every step of the way. As the daughter of the late Lynn Archibald — who had been a head coach at Idaho State and the University of Utah and an assistant at BYU — she had seen this process play out many times.
“I was with Mark at most of the interviews,” she said. “I grew up in this business and I understand it. We tried to keep this whole thing free from stress and it was really fun. We talked for hours and hours about this. We’re really lucky. Really, really, really lucky. We’re glad it’s official and we can get going.”
Pope praised his former coaches but paid tribute to his closest confidante.
“My No. 1 mentor, without a doubt, and there’s no close second, is Lee Anne Pope, my wife,” he said. “All of us get to walk this journey. She’s the smartest person I know, she’s the most beautiful person I know and she’s the funniest person I know.”
Pope said former Utah Valley President Matt Holland often said he hired Mark to get Lee Anne.
“She’s going to be a gift to this university,” Mark Pope said.
While at the Final Four and contemplating their future, Mark Pope received a strident text from his wife.
“We had missed some communication and she told me she wasn’t going to go anywhere with me if I didn’t hit her back right away,” he said with a laugh.
Wednesday had to be one of the most emotional days ever for Pope, who wears his heart on his sleeve under normal circumstances. The one time he broke down during his news conference was when he started talking about saying goodbye to his players at Utah Valley.
“The only thing that made this a hard decision for me, the one thing that made it hard was my locker room down the street,” Pope said. “It was an incredible privilege working with those fine young men who were chasing their dreams. When you work with a team, you form a bond that supersedes everything else. Those guys came there and trusted us. What they accomplished over the past couple of years was truly extraordinary.”
Lee Anne Pope added, “There was nothing easy about leaving the boys there. They are kids that we love so dearly and they came to play for Mark. They are part of our family and will always be part of our family.”
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Immediately before addressing the media on Wednesday, Pope briefly met with the current BYU players.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Hey guys, you’re in the unfortunately situation right now of having to play for a coach you didn’t choose,’” Pope said. “My first job is to recruit them and recruit them in the way that we recruit, which is to be transparent, open and honest with them. We want to see if they want, as individuals, what we are offering and go from there. I think we have a good chance to win over these guys. I actually recruited several of these guys. I anticipate that we’re going to have great relationships very quickly.”
The main message from Pope during his news conference was one of confidence and a willingness to take on all challenges.
“We’re going to schedule really aggressively,” Pope said. “We’ll be fearless in everything we do. I think we’ll take lumps, jump back off the mat and with confidence go on to the next battle. We will be team that is not afraid of failure, but they will be afraid of not growing.”