Mark Pope played a decade of professional basketball, including six seasons in the NBA. When his playing days were over, he went to medical school at Columbia University in New York. He was an elite athlete with an elite mind, moving from one high-paying profession to another.
But even while attending an Ivy League med school, Pope kept picking up his phone in the summer and asking Mark Fox about coaching college basketball. Fox had been an assistant coach at Washington when Pope was there for the first two seasons of his college career, before he transferred to Kentucky and was part of the Wildcats’ 1996 national championship team. The two remained close, and Fox—then the head coach at Nevada—was Pope’s sounding board as he contemplated a crazy career move.
“You need to stay in med school,” Fox kept telling Pope.
Fox moved to Georgia in the spring of 2009, and Pope called him again. This time, Fox finally relented. He told Pope he could come work the Bulldogs’ summer camp and get a taste of the coaching life.
“I literally jumped in the car and drove from New York to Georgia,” Pope recalled.
That was a long drive for a humbling job, a low-level operations position. Fox didn’t have a full-time assistant position available, and Pope didn’t have any experience anyway—just the high motor that kept earning his roster spots in the NBA.
“The job I had was bottom of the barrel,” Fox said. “It’s counting shoe strings and jockstraps. We talked on a Friday and we start camp on Sunday, and I don’t know if he’s going to do it or not. He shows up Sunday morning in my office and says, ‘Let’s go!’ “
Within a day of working camp, the dream of being Dr. Pope died. And a coaching star was born.
“It was in my soul,” Pope said. “I underestimated how much of my heart and soul this game captured.”
Eleven years later, he is one of the buzz coaches in college basketball. He is winning games and winning recruiting battles—most recently beating Kentucky’s John Calipari and Texas Tech’s Chris Beard in late April for the nation’s top available graduate transfer, Purdue’s Matt Haarms. Landing the 7-foot-3 Haarms could upgrade BYU’s 2020–21 season from a transition year to maintaining national relevance.
Pope’s first season at BYU was a 24-8 triumph that included a 13-3 record in what probably was the best-ever version of West Coast Conference. The highlight was an authoritative beating of No. 2-ranked Gonzaga, and the Cougars earned their first Top 25 ranking since 2011. They would have been seeded in the top half of the NCAA tournament, and could have been dangerous had that tourney been played.
Pope was handed a flush roster by departing longtime coach Dave Rose, with a nucleus of four returning seniors. That included big man Yoeli Childs, who pulled out of the 2019 NBA draft and became a beast late in the season, and guard T.J. Haws, who finished his career in the BYU all-time top 10 in scoring, assists, steals, three-pointers, games started and games played.
“There’s no way I could screw this up in one year,” Pope said.
But this wasn’t just an autopilot situation. Pope also added immediately eligible transfers from Arizona (Alex Barcello) and his previous coaching stop at Utah Valley (Jake Toolson), and cranked the BYU program up to a level it had not enjoyed since the Jimmer Fredette days. Analytics guru Ken Pomeroy ranked the Cougars as the No. 7 offensive team in the country in 2019-20, their highest ranking since Pomeroy began his ratings in 1997.
“These guys were willing,” Pope said of the holdovers he inherited. “They were willing to suspend their way of thinking how it’s supposed to be, and they were open to trying it another way.”
Fact is, Pope had other suitors after amassing 48 wins in his last two seasons at Utah Valley. But Fox believed Pope’s Mormon faith and success in the state made him a perfect fit at BYU. So far he’s 100% correct.
In keeping with what Rose built, he’s adept at putting an entertaining and efficient offensive team on the floor. Pope’s last three teams have excelled at taking good shots and making a lot of them: the 2017–18 Utah Valley team was in the top 30 nationally in three-point percentage, the ’18–19 ten was in the top 15 and the ’19-20 BYU team led the nation in that category (41.9%).
He has a fun playing style, but Pope’s personality is the real selling point. The 47-year-old is something of a human Labrador retriever, a 6-foot-10 tower of over-the-top enthusiasm. His tail is always wagging.
“He’s got this great spirit,” Fox said. “He has a very positive outlook.”
I mentioned to Fox that Pope seems a bit like a Mormon Bill Walton—everything in his world is wonderful, all the time. Fox hesitated a second, then concurred, adding, “My guess is that if they both ended up in confession, Mark would have less to talk about.”
Straitlaced enthusiasm can go a long way with BYU’s target audience. The fact that Pope’s approach won the day with Haarms when matched up against Calipari and Beard spoke volumes.
This was a guy Calipari—one of the most successful recruiters in history—really wanted. All 10 of his Kentucky teams have had at least two players at 6-foot-10 or taller—until now. The roster for 2020-21 has zero (unless 7-foot Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr wins an appeal for immediate eligibility).
Beard wanted Haarms as well, and Beard’s last two NCAA tournament teams advanced to a regional final and the national title game. He had a lot to sell.
Undaunted, Pope and his staff went to work, starting with a simple pitch to Haarms: give us one conversation. Let us make our pitch. They made it, then told Haarms the ball was in his court. His response: “Nobody’s more surprised than I am, but I’d like to have another conversation.”
The conversations kept building until they got a commitment.
It’s true that Haarms backslid as a junior after productively finishing his sophomore season, and it’s true that 11th-hour recruits are often overvalued. But in its history, BYU hasn’t often beaten Kentucky—Pope’s alma mater—for players that Kentucky really wanted.
“We are an extremely good fit for who he is and what he’s looking for,” Pope said. “Our personnel package is good for him. We really bonded quickly and closely with him as a staff. I’m so grateful that I get to coach him for a year.
“Fan bases think, ‘We’re the best school, so we should automatically get the best players.’ That’s not always the way it works in effective recruiting.”
And effective spring recruiting doesn’t happen without Pope’s big debut season in Provo. He needed some skins on the wall, and he got them—UCLA, Virginia Tech, Houston, UNLV, Utah State in non-conference play. Then the big win over Gonzaga, spurring a court storming at the Marriott Center.
“I don’t think we get in the conversation (with Haarms) without our success,” Pope said. “The recruiting trail has been much more friendly this spring than last spring. I can actually get in the conversation with guys in the (transfer) portal.”
The final frontier for BYU is the Final Four. The Cougars are 20th in all-time men’s basketball victories, and the 19 in front of them all have made at least one Final Four. They have made the most NCAA tournament appearances (29) without playing on the last weekend.
Mark Pope could be the guy who leads BYU there. That drive from New York to Georgia for a career change was the start of something big, and all signs are that it will continue to get bigger.