Seeking success of his own creation: A day in the life of new Washington coach Mike Hopkins
- 16-hour days filled with workouts, house hunting, AAU practices, Pearl Jam, recruiting, and lots and lots of Starbucks. That's the life of new Washington coach Mike Hopkins after 22 years of stability at Syracuse.
5:55 a.m., Friday, April 14
Before sunrise, Mike Hopkins slams his first Starbucks of the morning, ignores the 2,103 unread messages on his cell phone and faces his new life as Washington’s head basketball coach the only way he knows how—with two black eyes.
Uncertainty follows Hopkins around like a pet Husky, his new mascot. It’s the backdrop to all his interactions, the reason for his packed schedule, what propelled him to leave behind a life of success and stability for the chance to succeed and stabilize a program he built himself.
For the last 22 seasons, Hopkins courted players to Syracuse and then coached them as a faithful assistant to Jim Boeheim. Together, they won hundreds of games, made NCAA tournament appearances routine, faced an academic scandal, produced dozens of NBA players and hoisted a championship trophy in 2003. Hopkins did the same things, year after year, in the same place, year after year, knowing that when Boeheim retired he would inherit a hoops kingdom.
What happened in March, then, surprised even the man with two black eyes. Here came another school wondering if he wanted to be their basketball coach, and the gig, the timing and his own desire all aligned in ways they had not previously. Hopkins then upended his life, career and family in roughly 72 hours. He moved 3,000 miles across the country, swapped orange T-shirts for purple pullovers, traded a winning tradition for an uneven one and ascended from lifetime assistant to first-time head coach.
Fears faced, comfort abandoned, Hopkins decided to attack the uncertainty head on, with meetings (dozens) and phone calls (hundreds) and the messages he actually returned. His days start early. They end late. What follows is an account of one of those (very long) days.
On this morning, sneakers squeak inside the Alaska Airlines Arena. Huskies alternate between yawning and stretching. Hopkins wears a purple T-shirt with You, Me, We printed on the front, along with fresh bruises under each eye, matching shiners that resulted from a player’s elbow that collided with his face. Of all his introductions the past few weeks, that one hurt the most. The force of the blow shifted the bridge of his nose, but Hopkins, a man known as the “Human Bruise” throughout his playing career at Syracuse (1989–93), finished the drill and told the doctor to “just make sure it’s straight.”
Then he went back to work.
Hopkins and two assistant coaches, a pair of former college point guards in Cameron Dollar and Will Conroy, push the Huskies through drills that focus on footwork, defensive positioning and rotations. There’s not a basketball in sight. This much is certain: A team that finished 306th nationally in field-goal defense and 344th in three-point field-goal defense and yielded 81.1 points per game doesn’t need basketballs. Not yet, anyway.
The players traverse the sidelines by taking strides followed by long slides, chanting “Big step! Big step! Big step!” followed by “I got your back!” as they skid toward the player nearest them. After one forward stumbles, Dollar hollers, “Get somebody in here who knows what the hell they’re doing!”
Hopkins prioritized filling his staff over finding a house. He had to. Assistants, he reasoned, would stabilize the program and help him retain players and find recruits to fill the slots of those who departed. That’s how he planned to approach the unknown, one task completed at a time. He sought ambitious assistants who were unafraid to assume lead roles, as Dollar does for the defensive drills, with Hopkins watching from the side.
Of Conroy, Hopkins says, “I’ve never seen a guy with more self confidence and fight than him. I tell him, I want you to impose that on these guys. Your will.”
Practice ends. Hopkins and Dollar pick forward Dominic Green off the ground, lift him in the air and carry him off the court. Hopkins huddles with his coaches. The players descend the staircases to the weight room. When Hopkins follows, he takes three steps at a time, time being of the essence and what not.
The Huskies knock out push-ups while balanced on giant rubber balls, bench press to rap music and pull resistance bands with their faces twisted into grimaces. Hopkins never stops moving, bouncing, imploring, teaching. That’s his style, full throttle; here, there and everywhere; his blood type overcaffeinated.
Imagine Coach K taking out his phone like Hopkins, finding a Body Beast workout video, pressing play and doing lunges with weights in each hand, not to mention the bruises underneath his eyelids.
“What are you doing?” asks his daughter, 9-year-old Ella Grace, in the way kids pose questions when embarrassed.
“Body Beast,” Hopkins says. “Getting that beach body, honey.”
“That’s not a lot of weight,” she says, pointing to the 15-pound dumbbells in her father’s hands.
He laughs. “That’s better than when she told me I had a muffin top,” he says.
The players working out next to their new coach finished 2–16 in Pac-12 play last season (and 9–22 overall), and that was before All-America guard Markelle Fultz departed for the NBA, where he’s projected as the likely No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. Hopkins can’t control the roster he inherited, the players who transferred out, or the talent available to transfer in. But he can improve this team, right now, in this moment. Of that, he is certain. “That’s easy, a layup, you got this,” he tells a center doing triceps extensions. “I need a new nickname for you,” he yells at Green. “You’ll be so improved they won’t even recognize you. MEAN GREEN MACHINE! How about that? They’ll be like, he played at Washington last year?”
Sweat colors the back of Hopkins shirt. He knocks out another 10 lunges, with 60-pound dumbbells in each hand. Ella approves and starts mimicking his workout. Then he gathers the team and cedes the floor to Conroy.
“Impose your will,” Hopkins reminds him.
Before Hopkins digs into a plate of eggs, bacon and potatoes, he spies the Washington rowing team practicing on Lake Washington out the windows of the sports cafeteria. “We need that!” he says. “We’re doing that!” And by that, he means a team rowing event this spring.
Hopkins searches constantly for motivational techniques, team outings, guest speakers. He met recently with Chris Petersen, the Huskies football coach who built a national power upon his arrival at Washington in 2014. Hopkins followed Petersen for hours, through a coaching clinic, lamenting the insanity of the local housing market and peppering him with queries about everything from the inner workings of the athletic department to his weekly preparation. The takeaway: Petersen told him he had everything he needed at Washington to win.
Hopkins devours the bacon while describing the “speed dating” phase of his coaching career. He says Washington officials first called in mid-March, just before Syracuse hosted Ole Miss in the NIT. After three phone calls and without visiting the campus, Hopkins decided to take the job.
The Rebels topped the Orange that night, March 18, 85–80, and Hopkins couldn’t hold back his emotions afterward. If the tears seemed uncharacteristically dramatic at the end of a middling, forgettable season, Hopkins also knew what he had told no one outside his inner circle: that he had just coached his last game for Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
Hopkins says he came close once before to actually leaving. He declines to name the school but says he turned the job down three times, once after his oldest son, Griff (full name: Michael Griffith Jr.), overheard his parents debating the opening and cried out from downstairs, “We’re not moving, are we?”
Doubt crept in again last month. Hopkins describes the feeling as “a little cold feet” and “insecurity of the unknown,” as he stood at a career precipice, with guaranteed stability behind him and uncertain possibility in front. He told his wife, Tricia, he wasn’t sure, and she reminded him how his instincts had led him here, to this moment. How his playing career ended in 1995 and his father wasn’t able to hire him for the family business. How he spent weeks immobilized on the couch watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial, a bag of Doritos on his lap. How he started training children in basketball for Marv Marinovich in California. How he went back to Syracuse because his girlfriend was there and he wanted to get his masters degree and how a job on Boeheim’s staff opened up, the salary $16,500 to start.
Tricia, the girlfriend he moved across the country for back in ’96, looked him in the eyes this March. The Washington opening was everything he had ever wanted, she said. He had fanaticized about running his own program, building his own team. For years, he had been described as the hotshot young assistant, the recruiting ace. But he was 47 now and getting older. He wasn’t exactly young. The “great, long, almost Bieber-like hair” his wife remembers was no longer long, or almost Bieber-like.
“Just jump,” she told him.
Hopkins steers his black, impossibly long Chevrolet Suburban back toward the rental unit with suitcases lining the otherwise empty garage. “Siri,” he says, “play Pearl Jam,” and the grunge icons belt out ballads until Hopkins stops at a Starbucks for coffee No. 2 on a cloudy, typecast Seattle morning.
His phone buzzes incessantly, with messages from his assistants and mentors and dozens of coaches pitching their players to fill spots vacated in recent weeks. When Washington fired Lorenzo Romar after 15 respectable seasons, his best incoming recruit, a consensus five-star prospect in Michael Porter Jr., left for Missouri, following his father, Michael Porter Sr., who had been an assistant on Romar’s staff. The same local fanbase that skewered Romar’s in-game coaching openly wondered if Hopkins could recruit the way that Romar did. Never mind that Hopkins had been slated to take over a Syracuse program that went to two Final Fours in the last five years while the Huskies have been to one Final Four, ever, back in 1953.
Hopkins can’t focus on all that noise. He can’t care if people back in Syracuse think he left because Boeheim never would. He can’t argue with the skeptics in his new home.
He doesn’t even have a home yet, speaking of uncertainty …
“This,” he says, venti drip in hand, “is my chance to build something.”
After cartoons and bananas, Hopkins, Tricia, their three children (Grant, a sixth-grader, is their middle child) and their real estate agent—referred to affectionately as cousin Eric; he’s an actual cousin because Hopkins has family roots in the Seattle area—pile into two cars to commence an afternoon of house hunting. There are numerous spots on their agenda; three houses in Seattle, two on Mercer Island and three more in the suburbs east of downtown. The cheapest abode they’re considering is listed at $2.78 million. That’s a long way from the $16k that Hopkins banked for his first coaching gig.
“$16,500,” he corrects, smiling.
Seattle’s housing market, according to its local newspaper, is the hottest in the country right now. What the Hopkins family views is the top end. These residences are hidden behind massive green hedges or built atop hills with sweeping water and mountain views below. They feature bay windows and walls with built-in sound systems, bamboo floors and vaulted ceilings, quartz kitchens and walnut-paneled studies and exercise rooms and saunas. They’re the opposite of the program he took over. They’re already built.
While Griff complains that the classic colonial in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood feels haunted, Hopkins appears most concerned with how he will entertain his new team in each house. One on Mercer Island comes with a wide outdoor space complete with a big-screen TV and several couches. A house in Bellevue has an outdoor fireplace with a flat-screen TV on the patio and a movie room upstairs with a 100-inch projection screen.
“OMG,” Ella says. “This is sick.”
“Let’s go broke,” her father says.
“Very modern,” his wife says.
They go back and forth this way throughout the late morning and early afternoon. Fans forget that coaches go through this every time they change jobs. They forget that not only did Hopkins inherit a roster that lost a lot of games and allowed a lot of points but he also has to move four other humans to a city they’ve never been to and find a place for them to sleep, schools for them to attend, teams for them to play for.
He asks each of his children which house they like the most.
Each responds with different answer.
Uncertainty for another win.
Between houses hunted, Hopkins returns to the arena to meet with a recruit, a local guard and one of the better sophomores in the area. I need to head downtown to meet with Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners general manager.
“Take the boat,” Hopkins says, tossing me the keys to the Suburban.
He heads back inside. Back to work.
Hopkins steers The Boat toward another Starbucks, having settled into the role of Seattleite with apparent quickness and ease. He spent some of the previous two hours countering negative recruiting, he says, explaining to players and their parents his plans for the Washington program, the way he plans to build. He hears what other coaches tell recruits. That the Huskies are in turmoil. That Porter left. He tells parents about the players who committed to return and the opportunities available.
This is his top priority, he says, solidifying his first team for his first season as a head coach. That starts with his current players and his future players. Everything else that lands on his calendar must fit around his two most pressing concerns. Players, he says, spell love T-I-M-E. That’s what he plans to give them—time.
He just needs to find it.
Hopkins has an idea for an app. He explains it but then asks that the idea not be included in the story. Perhaps he’s on to something. Frankly, if such an app existed, it’s something I’d use tomorrow. But this moment also provides a window into the way that Hopkins’s brain works. He can recruit and house hunt and coach and drink coffee and eat bagels and dream up apps and firm up his beach bod all in the same day. Each step—each decision, each practice, each scouting trip—takes him one step away from the unknown.
He doesn’t have a house or a complete roster or a full recruiting class.
“Onward,” he says.
The Boat stops at Dick’s Drive-In, another Seattle institution marked off on a distinctly Seattle checklist on this Friday: clouds, Pearl Jam, coffee—all that’s missing is a hybrid, an IPA and the flannel shirt Hopkins insists is in his closet. Griff orders an impressive haul of two double cheeseburgers (known as a Dick’s Deluxe), a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake. The food vanishes in minutes. For a man who has spent the past three weeks searching, Hopkins reacts like he’s found nirvana. “I’m all about competitive advantage,” he says, polishing off his own chocolate shake. “These are the real deal!”
It seems like a good time to bring up Boeheim, Hopkins’s former coach and mentor. Boeheim was scheduled to retire after next season, handing Hopkins the job he always wanted, fulfilling the succession plan. Boeheim has said that he always intended to step down after the 2017–18 season, but if that’s true, it’s natural to wonder why Hopkins would leave when he’s 12 months from the throne.
Hopkins sidesteps questions about timing and Boeheim with the polished practice of a longtime coach. He steers his answers toward what’s possible at Washington, his family roots in the area, the platform in the Pac-12 and the metropolis he’s already in love with, where someday soon, if all goes well, he’ll find a house. This isn’t about Boeheim, he says, and more than once, perhaps sensing my skepticism. “Everything happens for a reason, man,” he continues, noting that if he had taken one of the jobs available to him five years ago, he would never have served on the USA Basketball staff under Mike Krzyzewski. He wouldn’t have won two gold medals in 2012 and ’16.
“Nothing is certain,” he says. “You gotta do what feels right.”
The drive from Seattle to Tacoma takes about 50 minutes, The Boat winding through the clouds and rain until the sun peeks out and a rainbow forms. What that means, if anything, Hopkins doesn’t know. But three weeks of rain has halted temporarily for the bright orange orb in the sky. It feels like a moment.
He parks and heads inside the downtown YMCA, with Griff in tow. They’re there to watch an AAU team, the Washington Supreme, which is sponsored by Under Armour and draws from Washington and neighboring states. Griff, a point guard with an accurate jump shot, may join the team. He’s scouting.
The energy in the gym picks up when Hopkins steps inside. Parents whisper and players peacock and the coaches’ voices gain an octave of intensity.
“How do you like the Pacific Northwest?” someone asks Hopkins. “Quite the paradigm change, huh?”
“I’m into precipitation,” Hopkins deadpans. “I love gray skies. I was born to live here.” He’s still on, 14 hours into his workday.
Hopkins watches practice for an hour. He can’t comment on specific recruits, but there’s a 7’3” center from Eastern Washington on the team, a power forward with his hair died blond and IPA-like hops and a wing described by observers as a flier who scores every minute or so. The coach flips Griff a team T-shirt, and Hopkins and his oldest settle into the front row of a small set of bleachers. They’re silent for a while, watching basketball like they’re back in Syracuse. Like nothing changed, even as everything did.
Will Griff play for the Supreme? That, too, remains uncertain. What is certain is that Hopkins will move forward, black eyes and all, without looking back.
The coach arrives back in Seattle. He hasn’t picked a house. His car doesn’t yet have license plates. His kids need to find a school. Griff needs to take the test for his learner’s permit. Ella needs a soccer team. His players need assurances. He needs recruits to sign. So it goes. Hopkins is headed to Las Vegas the next morning to visit a recruit. His flight leaves at 8 a.m.
His day will start at 5, again, as Hopkins moves toward the success and stability he left behind. Only this time, the program and what it accomplishes will be his own.