Now that the dust has settled and the Mark Pope era has begun, Insiders Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney examine the hire, and why, in their opinion, he was the right choice to lead the program moving forward. Boasting a strong NCAA and NBA pedigree, Pope looks to breathe new life into a basketball program that had grown stagnant. They also talk BYU football, which recently received commitments from two graduate transfer running backs, but also news that a potential star is calling it quits due to health reasons. That and more on this week’s episode.
Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Dick Harmon: Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. On this edition, we're going to bring you the latest on BYU basketball, the hiring of a coach, what it means, we're going to break that down. We're going to also talk about football — a key injury to a BYU football player. It's been nagging him for a while, and now he's decided to hang it up. And also some great news for BYU's running back situation. This and much more on this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast.
Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News, along with beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're coming to you from Provo, Utah, the intersection of all things BYU, and gentlemen, BYU has a basketball coach. I think it's the one that they wanted. I think it's a person that can step in right away, be on the run, is fully oriented and educated to what's expected of a BYU coach. He knows about the standards, the Honor Code, the admittance requirements, all the things and all the hurdles. He knows where most of the bones in the closet are, Jeff Call. This probably was a hire that I think they were on to all the way.
Jeff Call: Yeah, exactly. And I think this is the guy that BYU wanted. And this is the guy that they needed. And they were able to get him. And I really think that Mark Pope, like you said, he's gonna hit the ground running because he's been here before. He knows the challenges and all the things that are involved with BYU. And I'm telling you, that press conference was pretty impressive. I mean, it's kind of become cliché, winning the press conference, but he's a guy that, you know, spoke his mind. He's got passion. He mentioned the word relentless numerous times. And then afterwards he shook even our hands, he came up and talked to us.
DH: If there's one thing I could say, and you guys can correct me if I'm wrong. I've been around a lot of coaches in five decades here at BYU, and I would have to say that he's probably the smoothest, easiest, schmoozer. Saying the right things, being entertaining, quoting things. More than any that I can say, even LaVell Edwards. It's amazing that he has that kind of a gift. And it can be put to great use, especially in recruiting. Brandon Gurney, he's already out.
Brandon Gurney: I'm always interested in the optics of how things look, not to outsiders but to BYU fans in general. And I think with this new era of BYU athletics and kind of where it's at, I think fans struggle looking for credibility within that program. Is it really what we believe it is? Is BYU still BYU? What is it, what are we cheering for? What's going on? And I think for the optics of that, I think the prospect that a lot of people spoke about, and it was kind of the rub throughout the hiring process, was that Mark Pope knows what BYU is and he isn't going to come because he knows what BYU is. And to me, that was a very scary prospect. Where you have your No. 1 guy, a guy who's intimately familiar with what goes on here and what you're able to accomplish says no, I don't want that. That's not a good look. Not exactly a good look. So I think the optics that this guy, yeah, I understand BYU. I'm the rising star. And I want this. I think is a tremendous thing for the program. For the credibility, for the optics, good for recruits, fans, boosters, what have you, that BYU was able to get its first choice, a guy that understands BYU, and yeah, he's coming, I think is a really good look for this program.
DH: You know, I think it comes at the right time too, to have an experienced Division I coach on hand, because I don't want to get into bashing Dave Rose and his coaching staff that much, although that last game was an utter disaster for the program. But I will say this, there were things and processes that were happening, or I should say not happening, on that staff and with those players. And it had to do a lot with player development, it had to do with energy, it had to do with passion, had to do with a lot of different things that most staffs would be at their top of. And I think Dave had been in the past at his top, but they just weren't getting done. Mark Pope's going to come in and, as he told one member of our staff on our editorial board in a great podcast, and you can download that podcast if you want to. It's called "Therefore, What?"
It's Boyd Matheson and you can get it wherever you get podcasts or on deseretnews.com. But one thing that he told Boyd is that very successful coaches like Rick Pitino, they like to break things right down to the scratch and then build them up. And they do that with prima donnas. They do that with athletes that maybe think that they're more than they should be, and he builds them back up, and he likes to break things. And if you're doing really well, you like to break things. If you're doing really, really bad, you especially want to break things and build it back up. But let's take a listen to this segment of this podcast that he talks about how even today, when he gets a text or a phone call from Rick Pitino and he looks at it, he starts sweating, it had that kind of effect on him. Listen:
Boyd Matheson: I want to ask one other question about Kentucky and you mentioned that these guys were all McDonald's All-Americans. And so when you have that much talent, most of those guys would have been pampered from the time they were in the fifth or sixth grade. How do you create the culture that takes all of that talent and self-interest and unites it around the common vision for the team?
Mark Pope: So this was actually, I think, Coach Pitino's genius. OK. I'm going to say this and just bear with me for a second. He was so brutal and he was such a tyrant. And it was so harsh. OK. I remember my junior year we lost to North Carolina in the Elite Eight to go to the Final Four. And the Final Four that year happened to be in Seattle. So I was going to actually get to go home for the Final Four. And we had been ranked No. 1 in the country. I think almost the entire season. Obviously North Carolina, great program, it was Jerry Stackhouse and that whole crew. And we lost and we didn't play very well. And we were just devastated. I mean, we were destroyed as a team. And so we went back to the hotel and coach met with us as a team. We watched the game twice. And he was he was crushing us. I mean, it was so personal and it was so brutal and it was an awful experience. I'll never forget it as long as I live. To a point where I guarantee you every single one of us in that moment probably came close to some real hatred for this man, right? And then we go to our rooms, we finally get to our rooms late that night and we shut it down. And then we get calls early in the morning and he's scheduled individual meetings with every single one of us. And I went down there and he personally, individually, in a closed room, me and him just destroyed me. Right?
And it was at that point, it was kind of my breaking point, where I was just like, I just hate this dude. And listen if ever there was a guy that respected authority and was a pleaser, but he pushed me to my very limit. And then interestingly enough, we come back the next season and for the first time in 41 years, we sweep the SEC season, regular season, and we I think we averaged winning games by 24.5 points a game. And that was a league that had five teams or six teams most other years in the top 25 and had two teams in the Final Four and I think four teams in the Sweet 16. It was a ridiculous league. And the magic of what coach did, and I'm not saying I suggest this, but the magic of what he did was he was so brutal to us because we were all prima donnas. We all thought we were going to the league, we all thought we should get everything, we all felt entitled, right? He was so brutal to us that the only option we had was to turn to each other to try and survive him. Right?
And I'm telling you, it wasn't by mistake. It was genius. And in the process. I believe this. I believe that it was really thought out and I believe it was intentional and the thing is that all of us have so much love for Coach, but all of us have complete PTSD. When I see his name pop up on my phone, I kid you not, I break into the sweats. Right now as a 46-year-old man I break into the sweats. And that is unanimous through my team. But he gave us an incredible gift and that was his method of unifying a group that should have been impossible to unify.
DH: One of the candidates to BYU's coaching job was a guy by the name of Mark Madsen, a very successful NBA coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. An experienced nine-year veteran NBA player, with the Lakers and with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Also played at Stanford for a Final Four team, a great LDS prospect out of Walnut Creek, California. Jeff Call, he came right to the doorstep of this interview. They went another direction, but now he's been hired at Utah Valley. What's the impact of his interviewing for this job and the selection of Pope over Madsen?
JC: Well, I think Mark Madsen was a very serious candidate for this job at BYU. And from what we hear he was great in the interviews, very impressive. His knowledge, his passion and everything like that. One aspect about his hiring is it's going to kind of make an interesting dynamic with this — if you call it a rivalry between BYU and UVU. Because you've already had BYU players over at BYU. Now you got Mark Pope, who was UVU's coach. There's guys in the transfer portal from UVU, who knows where they'll end up? But it makes for a really interesting dynamic and I think UVU should be excited about who they have in Mark Madsen. I think he brings just a different perspective. I mean, his wealth of experience and background, a guy that knows Kobe Bryant and Shaq and all these guys. And you know, it's pretty cool for UVU to have a guy of that caliber and it will be interesting to see what he can do with recruiting and the style of play and all that stuff.
DH: It's great for the valley to have these two guys here. I kind of feel sorry for Utah Valley in a way because they had their guy, they had Mark Pope, they had his staff intact. Now they didn't choose a member of a staff to take over the program. I think there's a natural inclination for those players to be very disappointed, very frustrated, very angry that Mark Pope is gone and the possibility that his coaching staff that was with him, pretty good guys, might be following him to BYU. And that leaves them almost with nothing. So he's never been a Division I coach. And he's going to start right now trying to get in there and plug that in. Well, on the other hand, what we're concerned with here is Mark Pope might be off and running with his former staff, and the two worlds are completely different.
BG: Yeah, he's going to struggle with keeping kids in that program. One thing we know about transfers, once you transfer, or you have someone in your family transfer, it makes it that much more easy to transfer again. And I think (Jake) Toolson's gone. I think that's pretty apparent. And it's going to be tough, but just listening to Madsen, man, he exudes a lot of enthusiasm. You're just drawn to the guy. And what really struck me in that press conference was how specific he got with just things that he'd learned and just fundamentals with basketball and just strategies and all that. I don't think I've ever heard a coach be that specific during a press conference. You could tell that he has an absolute passion for it, and just loves the the nuts and bolts features of basketball. And I think in time he's going to be successful. I think that team's going to take a hit, they're probably not going to be what they thought, but I think that's kind of a natural thing. When you're UVU, I mean, with all due respect to UVU, it's not to the point where it's a destination program. It's more of a stepping stone program right now. Maybe it will get there someday but right now I think it'd be disingenuous to name it as a program that's just not anything other than a stepping stone right now.
DH: Jeff Call, one of the things that they've got to do immediately is to recruit BYU's players to the staff. They have to go to them and sell themselves, sell their program, get them going, get them excited about offseason workouts, get them plugged in. From what I can understand from Mark Pope, he's going to make these guys work extremely hard. He's gonna skin them right down to the bone. But what kind of scholarship availability do you have on the staff to recruit incoming talent. Mark's already out seeing people, he made a visit to see a player at Wasatch Academy, a guy from Mali, Africa, 6-fot-9, power forward who's a junior. And then he went up to Washington, the Seattle area, his hometown, and looked at a guard there. But what are the availabilities of scholarships other than Yoeli Child's scholarship that's open?
JC: Yeah, well, I mean, you got two guys, Rylan Bergersen and Jahshire Hardnett, who have already announced that they're leaving the program. I think there could be some more attrition in the next couple weeks. I mean, we don't know. They very well could see other guys leaving the program and things like that. As far as recruiting, I do think Mark Pope — a couple things that he will do is number one, I think he's gonna be pretty aggressive in international recruiting. I heard that he's already planning a trip to Europe to try to plant those seeds and make those contacts and take it seriously. Because let's be realistic, if you want to compete in the upper echelon of college basketball, you've got to have those guys. That's where we're headed now. And I think BYU has the resources to do it. It's just a matter of finding the right people to do it, and getting it done. And the other thing that I think Mark Pope brings is one of the things he'll emphasize is player development and getting guys ready for the next level and things like that. And, you know, I think one of the knocks on the old staff is that maybe these guys weren't getting developed. Maybe that's why you see guys like Yoeli Child's and Elijah Bryant and Eric Mika leaving, because maybe they felt like they weren't getting better, and they weren't going to end up where they want to be. So they decided to leave. And under Mark Pope, I think it's going to be a different thing. We'll see how it plays out.
DH: You know, before we leave basketball, let's listen to the press conference with Mark Pope. We'll give you a segment of his explanation of his passion and his energy level for BYU basketball.
MP: As coaches, we have this incredible gift of these young men who come to a school and they sit across the table from you and they slide their trust across the table and they give it to you. And they say, we're going to block out all the external noise that we get pounded with, and all the internal noise that comes from us. And as a player, I'm going to put my trust into you and your staff. And that gift is like few others in life. And it really is a treasure and it's the great honor of coaching. And so I like to talk all the time about shepherding these young men. And I choose that word very carefully. Now, I shepherd maybe a little different than the classical shepherding. I think a lot of times in practice when things get really heated, or in a game, my guys might look me, like coach, you're shepherding way different than we were taught before. But that's what we do with these young men and it's what we'll do here as a staff at BYU. We will be wholehearted — it's an important word. We will be wholehearted in everything we do. We will be relentless. Every minute, every day, 24-7, chasing excellence on this team. Relentless. And we will be together. And in all those ways it will be our goal to represent this university and this community in a way that all of us are going to be extraordinarily proud of. And my deal is, think about what you think we can't do as a program. Think about it. Let me know. And that's what we're going to go do. That's what we're going to get done.
DH: Right now we're going to talk about BYU football and there's some things that have happened in the football program just in the last few days that really I think are pretty impactful. BYU got commitments from a senior graduate transfer from South Carolina. If you look at his tape, the guy is incredibly quick. He's got good hands, he's shifty, he's a power back. A guy by the name of Ty'Son Williams. And then you had a four-star local kid, a defensive end, one of the best pass rushers that we've seen at BYU probably in the last three or four years end up saying he's going to quit football. Brandon Gurney, what's the impact of these two decisions?
BG: Well it's hard to say that Langi Tuifua is going to be much of an impact because he didn't play. So whenever you say that it's more about ability and whatnot, but I think we saw enough of him as a freshman to think yeah, this guy's a player. And the thing about BYU football that I don't understand, because it seems like it should be the same skill set as a tight end, is the lack of getting a good rush end in this program. Defensive end has not been a position — for years BYU essentially played just three down, nose tackle types in that three-four system. But with this new four-three system they need edge pass rushers, they need stars. And I think Langi Tuifua had that in in him, for sure. A four-star guy out of Bingham, a guy that was committed to Oregon. He had multiple Pac 12 offers, he was a big, big get. So yeah, potential wise that's a bad thing. Ty'Son Williams from South Carolina — perfect. Absolutely perfect. I mean they scored, they got (Emmanuel) Esukpa and now they got Williams coming in. I don't think you could have scripted it much better as far as what BYU needed, what they were able to get. Very good thing for the progress
DH: Esukpa from Rice University, a transfer that was there with Coach AJ Steward. And, Jeff Call, the running back position at BYU was really, really the big question mark coming out of this past fall. And in the spring. And now it looks like it could be, if these guys get into school and it actually happens, could be one of the strengths.
JC: Yeah, it's pretty remarkable considering you went through the recruiting period. And there's all these offers that went out to kids to try to fill a void at running back. Really kind of a swing and a miss, nothing really happened. And so you go through spring ball and you're looking at the guys and there was some encouraging things with seeing Kavika Fonua back out there with all the injuries he's dealt with. Lopini Katoa looked pretty good. And you have other guys like Tyler Allgeier coming forward. But then toward the end of spring you get Esukpa coming, which is huge for BYU, a guy with experience. And then now with Ty'Son Williams, I mean, wow, that's better than I think anyone would have expected for BYU. And if they can get these guys in, get them acclimated. I think they could both make a pretty big impact this fall.
DH: It'll be fun to watch that develop this summer and this fall. Let's shift gears a little bit. The Cougar Classic in golf, if you like golf, Riverside Country Club this weekend. You're going to see one of the top five collegiate golfers in the country in BYU's Peter Kuest. So if you want to go out and see some good play go out and see that. BYU baseball has been on a tear, they've lost a couple of games but they've been on a tear. They've been very good. They've had a couple of guys that have been recognized nationally for the way that they've played. Brandon Gurney, could you give us your take on that? And then Jeff.
BG: I was able to interview Mike Littlewood for an article a few weeks back and he cleaned house. He absolutely cleaned house with that program. What was the number? I think he let 10 guys go, and he said several, maybe most of them it wasn't their choice. He just thought that the culture — and culture is really important in baseball. You're playing more games than any other sport. There are a lot of up and downs. And you have to maintain a consistency in baseball, I think maybe more so than any other sport, you could argue, just because you're playing so much. And it's easy to get down and just kind of get in that rut. I just think culture is a big thing. And man I've been a big fan of Littlewood. I think when he's come in he just has the mentality, the enthusiasm, just a guy that's really easy to like and pull for. And he had a down year last year. But he recognized that and he fixed it. And I think that's a real positive thing. Exciting going on with BYU baseball.
DH: Jeff call your final word.6 comments on this story
JC: Yeah. Just got tagging on with baseball. BYU made the NCAA Tournament a couple years ago, and things seemed to be going in a positive direction. And last year was that, like Brandon mentioned, kind of the down year. But I think this team right now, I think it's poised to get back to the NCAAs. I would expect that to happen because they've got the pitching, they've got hitting, it's just a real complete, deep team and I expect to see big things from this baseball team this spring.
DH: Brandon, Jeff, thanks for being here. Appreciate you guys. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Cougar Insiders podcast. We'd love to hear from you through email at [email protected] and please subscribe or download this podcast wherever you find it. We're working to deliver you the most up to date information on BYU sports and love to have you join us.