Provo • More than 15 years after it happened, the zinger delivered by a University of Utah basketball fan to Jeff Judkins — a Utah Man if there ever was one until he left Rick Majerus’ staff in 1999 for BYU, of all schools — still hurts deeply.
You can see it in Judkins’ eyes, and sense it in his voice as he toys with his breakfast at the down-to-earth Amber Restaurant, the same South Salt Lake diner where he has met his brothers and father (until Bary Judkins’ death in 2005) for comfort food and sports talk over breakfast almost every Tuesday morning the past 25 years.
“I went to a Utah men’s game right after I left because it was senior night for a couple of guys I had coached,” Judkins said last week. “I’m walking out of the Huntsman Center, and some guy approaches me and says, ‘How in the heck can you come back to this building after what you have done, you traitor?’ I had spent one third of my life in that building, so yeah, that kind of hurt.”
Incredibly, Judkins has now spent more time at BYU, 15 years, than he did at Utah — four as a player where he became an All-WAC first-teamer three times from 1974-78 and 10 as an assistant men’s basketball coach from 1989-99 on Majerus’ highly successful staff.
After a falling out, of sorts, with the eccentric Majerus, Judkins was hired in 1999 by then-BYU coach Steve Cleveland to be the school’s director of basketball operations. After a year in that position, women’s athletic director Elaine Michaelis asked him to help Trent Shippen coach the women’s team. A year later, Shippen was forced out and Michaelis handed the reins to Judkins.
The Utah Man, one of Salt Lake City’s favorite sons, is flourishing in Provo, if you haven’t noticed.
He just finished his 13th season at the helm by taking the Cougar women to 28 wins and the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the first time since his first year. With 282 career victories, he’s the winningest women’s basketball coach in school history.
“It’s hard to believe I have been at BYU longer than I was at Utah,” Judkins said. “Back when I was playing at Highland High or for coach [Jerry] Pimm or working with coach [Majerus], I never would have imagined that it would turn out like this.”
But it has. Judkins has taken the road less traveled, and he’s entirely comfortable with the way it has turned out, while also acknowledging that he still dreams of one day returning to the men’s ranks as a head coach.
“You know, I would still like to coach men again, probably,” he said. “If I had to pick a dream job, I would like to coach somewhere in the state, like Utah or BYU would be in my top five. The Utah Jazz would be in there. I love this state, and I love being with my family as much as I can.”
While the state’s other high-profile “traitor” — former BYU linebacker-turned-Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham — rarely expresses any fond feelings for his alma mater, Judkins is just the opposite, and he doesn’t hide it. He says Utah’s plunge in college basketball to unprecedented depths the past decade saddened and troubled him greatly, and he’s thrilled that Larry Krystkowiak has seemingly turned the program around.
“I will always have some of that [Utah blood] in me,” he said. “Not very many people have gone my route.”
Judkins remains so close to his former Utah teammates and players that after his team upset Nebraska in the second round, he received 170 text messages, a lot of them from former Utes.
“Really, friendships and relationships go beyond the rivalry,” he said. “I loved Utah. I loved the players. I loved everything about it. But [Majerus] was a hard man to work for, because of the crazy hours. I loved my opportunity there, and the other assistant coaches were, guys like Joe Cravens, Tommy Connor and Donnie Daniels — we worked really well together.”
Likewise, Judkins says he’s “extremely” happy coaching the Cougars and the 13 years have gone by quickly.
“It has been great,” he said. “I have had a lot of wonderful opportunities, we have won a lot of games, been really successful, and I have been around some really great people. I have had some really good players go through the program.”
Judkins said it was “a big adjustment” going from coaching men to coaching women, who he still occasionally refers to as “girls” before catching himself.
“People don’t realize how big of a change that is,” he said. “But it has made me a better coach, in a lot of ways. Really, it has been a great run.”
No, the 58-year-old Judkins isn’t looking to leave anytime soon — unless one of his dream jobs comes calling, and even he acknowledges that that ship has probably already sailed. He said he would like to coach at least four or five more years, and see where it goes.
“I am going to get out of it when I don’t like it anymore,” he said. “If I feel like I hate going to work every day, I won’t do it anymore. That’s one thing I can honestly say — in my 25 years of coaching, I go to work every day and I enjoy it. That’s something that I kind of cherish.”
Although Majerus died in 2012 without ever reaching out to Judkins after Judkins left the U., Juddy, as he is called by virtually everyone who knows him, declines opportunities to say anything negative about his former boss. He credits the man he still refers to as “Coach” for teaching him more about basketball than anyone else.
Judkins still lives in Salt Lake City, and makes the hour-long commute to Provo almost every day for eight months before and during the season. He had three kids in high school when he got the BYU job, and didn’t want to uproot his family. Then he was put in an LDS Church bishopric for six years. Now he has six grandkids and two live in Salt Lake, so his wife, Mary Kay, wants to be near them as much as possible.
“I like driving to work, because it gives me the opportunity to think,” he said. “Driving home, that’s the hardest part, and then you can’t sleep after a game, win or lose. Coaching does that to you, makes your mind race and makes sleeping difficult after games.”
And that’s true on either side of the Point of the Mountain.
Judkins at the Y.
Former Ute basketball player and assistant coach Jeff Judkins’ success at rival BYU
• Eight seasons of 20 wins or more in 13 seasons
• Six NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament appearances, including two trips to the Sweet 16
• Three conference coach of the year awards (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2010-11)
• Has coached four All-Americans: Jennifer Hamson, Kristen Riley, Ambrosia Anderson, Erin Thorn
• Winningest coach in BYU women’s basketball history with 282 career victories