Whenever Mark Pope walks into his office in the NUVI Basketball Center on the campus of Utah Valley University, he’s filled with a sense of pride.
“We built this building,” he said. “When I got here, this was just a grassy field. It wasn’t even an idea that had really been conceived. There’s something beautiful about that.”
That’s why, in a profession that rewards coaches for climbing the ladder as fast as possible, the 45-year-old Pope can picture himself in Orem for the long haul after signing a six-year contract extension with the Wolverines last week.
“We have so much more in the tank. I feel like we’re barely scratching the surface right now,” Pope said. “I’m so engaged in this project to see if we can make it huge.”
The Wolverines won a school-record 23 games last season, earning a trip to the College Basketball Invitational for the second year in a row. When Pope and his staff inherited the program, the Wolverines had just finished a season in which they ranked 321st in the country. Three years later, UVU finished ranked 92nd — the second largest jump of any program in that span, behind only Nevada.
“That’s staggering,” Pope said. “We’re really proud of that.”
MARK POPE AT UVU
2015-16 • 12-18 overall, 6-8 WAC
2016-17 •17-17, 6-8
2017-18 • 23-11, 10-4
With the coach’s old deal set to expire in 2020, Pope and UVU athletics director Vince Otoupal started having contract talks in November. For Pope, the key question was whether either he or the program had reached their potential.
“We’ve come somewhere we’ve never been before. Are we ready to make this next jump?” he said. “I think we both became convinced that we’re more passionate than ever to do that. I really believe we can.”
Pope has helped usher in a new era of basketball for the rapidly growing university.
When he first left his job as an assistant at BYU for the head coaching job at Utah Valley, Pope said he met with coaches and players who asked if UVU was a junior college or a Division II school.
“We don’t get those questions anymore,” Pope said.
The coach was key in getting funding for the school’s new basketball center, which was finished last year. During his first season with the Wolverines, Pope recalls using his fundraising efforts to help motivate his players.
“I was in the locker room telling my guys, ‘We’ve worked so hard to get this person to consider financing the building and they’re actually at the game. So we have to put a product out on the floor,’” he recalled. “That’s not a normal pregame speech. But that’s how involved even our players were in this process.”
Between the school’s new facilities and success on the court, Pope has been able to successfully recruit a number of high-level Division I transfers looking for fresh starts at a smaller program. This season, the Wolverines have added transfers from Boise State, New Mexico, and Oklahoma State.
“Our recruiting has been great,” Pope said. “Every year, it seems to get to be a little bit less of an impossible sell. I think people are trusting us more.”
Pope is charismatic and energetic, and he will do whatever it takes to put his basketball program on the map — as long as it’s OK with his wife.
Last fall, Pope scheduled back-to-back road games Kentucky and Duke, both college basketball powerhouses, in hopes of creating some buzz for the Wolverines. But when Pope suggested he would allow himself to be shot with a Taser as a promotional stunt, his wife drew the line.
“She was not excited about that. Her tagline was: That’s just dumb,” he said with a laugh. “But it will be on the table again. Everything’s always on the table.”
Pope believes the Wolverines are just starting their journey. The coach wants to build UVU into a consistent top-50 program and a regular participant in the NCAA tournament.
“To do things that nobody believes we can do,” he said, “that’s where my heart is at.”
ABOUT MARK POPE
College playing career • Washington 1991-93, Kentucky 1994-96
NBA career • Second round pick of the Indiana Pacers (55th overall) in the 1996 draft. Played for Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets.
Coaching career • Assistant coach at Georgia, Wake Forest and BYU. Hired as head coach at Utah Valley in 2015. Fun fact • Pope’s wife Lee Anne, is the daughter of former Utah men’s basketball coach Lynn Archibald.