Provo • Jake Toolson acknowledges that what he is doing is a bit unusual, and maybe even absurd, to some. It might be unprecedented in the college basketball world, although he’s not quite sure about that.
Toolson, the 2018-19 WAC Player of the Year at Utah Valley University, is back at BYU, the place where his college basketball career began, and he spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday since BYU officially announced his return on May 24.
“I am really excited about the opportunity. I know some people think it is weird — returning to a school you left,” he said. “It was hard leaving BYU [in 2016] and I never thought I would come back. But I am back. I don’t have any feelings of hate or animosity, anything like that. I am grateful for the experience the first time around because it propelled me into the player and person I am today. I’m better because of it.”
Toolson said he wouldn’t change his “unique” journey and has no regrets.
“It didn’t work out, but then it worked out,” he said. “That’s life, sometimes.”
Here’s the story:
The nephew of former BYU basketball great Danny Ainge grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., dreaming of playing at BYU, and committed to then-coach Dave Rose when he was a junior at Highland High.
He averaged 7.8 minutes and 2.3 points per game as a freshman while playing in 26 games and was averaging 13.8 minutes and 3.9 points through 10 games his sophomore season when he abruptly took a medical leave of absence for undisclosed reasons, failing to accompany the team on a trip to Hawaii for a Christmas tournament in Oahu.
JAKE TOOLSON’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL TIMELINE
February, 2013: Commits to BYU as a junior at Highland High in Gilbert, Ariz.
October, 2014: Decides to forego a church mission and begins his career at BYU
December, 2015: Takes a medical leave of absence midway through his sophomore season at BYU
April, 2016: BYU announces that Toolson is officially leaving the basketball program and is transferring to Utah Valley University
March, 2018: Completes his sophomore season at UVU averaging 10.9 points per game
March, 2019: Completes his junior season at UVU averaging 15.8 points per game and is named the WAC Player of the Year
May, 2019: Earns his bachelors degree from UVU, enters the NCAA transfer portal, then follows former UVU coach Mark Pope back to BYU
It was pretty much known for months that Toolson’s days at BYU were over, but the school made it official in April of 2016 with a two paragraph news release. Why did he leave?
“It was a combination of a few things,” Toolson said. “I needed to take a step back from basketball in that time in my life and I just needed to figure out what I wanted to do and take care of some things as far as my health was concerned. I needed to take care of myself first and really just take care of some lingering things in my life that were holding me back from being the best I could be.”
Toolson said there was a time when he didn’t think he would ever play college basketball again. Now he’s interested in pursuing a professional career, perhaps overseas, when the 2019-20 season concludes.
He credits his wife, Sarah, who graduated from BYU while he was playing at UVU, for “helping me get over the hump” and into a better place “emotionally, physically and spiritually.” The couple grew up together in Arizona and dated in high school before getting married in Utah a few years ago. Their son, Gus, was born last September.
Toolson transferred to UVU to reunite with former BYU assistant Mark Pope, but had to sit out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA transfer rules. He was on the bench when the Wolverines smoked the Cougars 114-101 on Nov. 26, 2016 in the Marriott Center.
He regrets that UVU was not able to replicate that stunning upset in his two years playing there. BYU won the rematch 85-58 in Orem (Toolson had 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting) in 2017 and downed UVU 75-65 last November in Provo when Toolson had 14 points on 6-for-14 shooting.
“Every season, that BYU game was circled on the calendar,” he said. “I was pissed off and wanted to play my best and wanted to really just show them what they missed out on. … I felt maybe a little bit slighted and like I was just collateral damage in that they didn’t have plans for me in the future. And that made me mad.
“But at the same time I can’t sit here and say I was in a position at the time to be a guy they wanted to invest in and wanted to plan on for the future. It kind of goes both ways," he continued.
Toolson averaged 10.9 points per game his sophomore years at UVU (basically, the NCAA gave him his sophomore year at BYU back because he only played in 10 games) and 15.8 points per game his junior year. He was named Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year in March and graduated in May with a degree in communications, enabling him to move on without penalty as a graduate transfer.
Toolson will enter BYU’s public administration program this fall and work on his masters degree.
He said that “BYU wasn’t even in the picture at first” when he decided to leave UVU. But once Pope got the BYU job, he started to consider the possibility of returning. Pope eventually started to recruit Toolson, but his best move was bringing former UVU assistants Cody Fueger and Chris Burgess with him to Provo.
“BYU wasn’t always interesting to me,” Toolson said. “The only reason I considered them was because of my relationship with coach Pope. And when they hired coach Fueger, that kinda put it over the top for me.”
Fueger was BYU’s director of basketball operations from 2013-15 and moved down University Parkway with Pope to UVU.
“Coach Fueger is someone that has had a great impact on my life,” Toolson said. “Like I said on Twitter, there is no one I would rather finish this thing out with than coach Fueger, because we’ve been through a lot together. … We have developed a unique and pretty cool relationship over the years. He just cares about me as a person and wants the best for me. I trust him a lot. When I decided to leave BYU, he was one of the first persons to reach out to me.”
Toolson has been at BYU for a couple weeks now, and Pope said Tuesday he is acclimating well.
“It is a gift to be able to coach a guy that has grown as much as he has and turned into the person that he is,” Pope said. “The guys have been incredibly accepting. They are grateful that he is here.”
Toolson said it has been “pretty cool to just see the way that people have embraced me and just welcomed me back,” and that it hasn’t been awkward at all.
“Once I stepped foot back on campus, it wasn’t weird to me because I am with coach Pope, coach Fueger and coach Burgess again,” he said. “They are familiar to me. Before all this went down, I would have never imagined I would be back at BYU. But that just goes to show how important and how special my relationship is with that staff and the trust that we have in each other. I think that’s the reason I am back.”
That, and to take care of some unfinished business — a dream he’s had since childhood.