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Jeff Judkins grew up wearing the red of Utah. Now as BYU women’s basketball coach, he’s true blue

First Published      Last Updated Mar 09 2017 05:59 pm

Jeff Judkins had big plans, big hoop dreams 40 years ago.

He still does, in a place, in a role, he did not imagine, a place and a role that have traversed gender and rival allegiance.

The junior who would become an All-American at Utah already had proved his coach, Jerry Pimm, wrong. When Pimm met with Judkins, out of Highland High School, recruiting him as a kind of afterthought, the coach, in an unorthodox pitch, told the eager prepster that he wasn't all that good, that he'd be lucky to be a starter for the Utes by his senior season.




As Pimm left the family's home that day, Judkins turned to his parents and said, "He's going to regret saying that."

Pimm, of course, never did. He instead jumped aboard Judkins' expanding game and enjoyed a whole lot of winning. After growing and adapting his skills during his freshman season, Judkins led the Utes in scoring for the next three years. He helped Utah beat Kentucky — yes, you read that right — during his junior season, the Wildcats' first loss ever at Rupp Arena. He made the United States' World Games team that same year — 1977 — playing alongside Larry Bird, Sidney Moncrief and Darrell Griffith and winning a gold medal.

Judkins roomed with Bird for eight weeks during that particular tour, getting to know rather well the future NBA great, who a couple of years later would become his teammate in Boston. When the Celtics drafted him in 1978, it commenced a five-year pro career that took him from Boston to Dallas to Utah to Detroit to Portland.

As Judkins looks back at those days now, a sigh blows out of his mouth and a wry smile creases his face.

"I just kind of got tired of it all," he said. "I could have kept playing in Europe, but I decided it was time to move on."

Judkins had no clue that he would be coaching BYU's women's team four decades later. Not just coaching that team, but leading the Cougars to 350 wins over a span of 16 years, most recently taking those women to three straight NCAA Tournaments, one of those years making the Sweet 16, before battling for a fourth consecutive berth this season. He is uncertain whether the Cougars will accomplish that last one, believing it will take winning the West Coast Conference tournament to get the invite. No. 2-seeded BYU begins the attempt Friday in Las Vegas against San Diego.

Judkins' path from the NBA to Provo was circuitous, meandering from a job selling auto glass for five years, working local basketball camps, to an assistant's position under Rick Majerus at his alma mater for 11 years to the flip to BYU as a men's team administrator for two years to the women's head coaching spot.

Judkins played no small part in Utah's tremendous success during the Majerus years, helping recruit players such as Alex Jensen, Jeff and Britton Johnsen, Michael Doleac, Phil Cullen and Hanno Mottola. As Jensen put it, back when he was a senior at Utah: "Coach Judkins is one of the main reasons I came to Utah." He also was often the buffer between an overbearing Majerus and the players, who desperately needed buffering.

The winning, the relationships built at Utah from 1989 to 2000 were beyond rewarding, Judkins said. But the job turned into a burden. After he applied for a couple of head coaching jobs elsewhere, jobs for which Majerus withheld his recommendation, the head coach started taking responsibilities away from Judkins and another assistant, Donny Daniels, transforming them into glorified team managers. Basically, the coaching staff spun into a dysfunctional mess.

"I learned a lot from coach," Judkins said. "He had a great defensive mind. But he was difficult to work for. He'd call at 3 in the morning to talk about recruiting. So many of the things I loved about coaching were taken away by him. He didn't respect other people and he thought highly of himself. I loved the university, loved the players, but it got to the point where I had to move on."

Then-BYU head coach Steve Cleveland hired Judkins as the Cougars' director of basketball operations, causing the former Ute star to cross over from the red to the blue. In what was likely a first, and maybe a last, in the rivalry, all the Ute players came over after the game to embrace their friend in blue the first time Utah played BYU after Judkins' departure that next year. It was an emotional moment for the man.

Still wanting to run his own program, and needing experience doing so, Judkins accepted the BYU women's job in 2001-02. "I thought I'd coach the women for a couple of years," he said, "then go coach a men's team. No, I did not think I'd be here for 16 years."

But something strange and wonderful happened to Judkins over that span: "I realized coaching is coaching. The women aren't much different from the men. I really enjoyed it. I love coaching players who want to learn. My players have been like sponges, they soak up what you teach. That's the best part of it. I enjoy the personalities of the girls. I have three daughters myself. They are competitive. They want to win. They like being coached."

Makenzi Pulsipher, a senior guard and co-captain from Draper, said Judkins is an informed, caring coach the players respect and respond to: "He's been a great coach to play for. He has a huge heart and has his players' best interests at heart. He's a coach you can talk to and he takes the players' views into consideration. He definitely knows what he's doing. For him, it's not all about basketball. He's interested in far more than just what basketball has to offer."

Judkins has had opportunities at various men's programs, but has declined. And he bristles at the notion that coaching men should somehow be seen as more prestigious than coaching women.

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