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Mark Pope has done exactly what BYU wanted him to do — inject a jolt of energy into Cougar basketball

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Head coach for BYU Mark Pope yells to his team as BYU takes on UNLV in men's NCAA basketball at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Sat. Dec. 7, 2019.

Provo • Mark Pope has been a breath of fresh air at BYU. Maybe even a bit of comedic relief.

The first-year coach is known for his sarcastic quips and jovial smile, though not when coaching a game, obviously. But he is able to come off both as a relatable guy, while also being dependable and capable of getting the work done.

Last Saturday, after then-No. 23 BYU upset then-No. 2 Gonzaga, Pope invited students from The ROC to a late-night dinner at Cubby’s — and rang up a bill of more than $1,800. His personality has been a big part of how the new coach has won over Cougar Nation.

Longtime BYU radio analyst Mark Durrant has been around the program just about his whole life — his older brother Devin Durrant is a former BYU great and Mark played for the Cougars himself from 1989-1995, with a break in between for his church mission. Durrant even believes he’s witnessed the most BYU games since 1979. With the exception of the two years he was out on his mission, he’s only missed a handful of games since then.

So, he’s seen his fair share of coaches come and go at BYU, but there’s something about Pope that really sticks out to him.

“The thing I like most about him, besides his coaching, he’s just so positive and so effusive and just great to be around — I think that’s refreshing,” Durrant said. “A lot of coaches, and this is not reflecting on any particular coach, I think they have to be kind of tough and close themselves off from everybody and the media. ‘Everyone is out to get them’ mentality. But Pope, he’s just so fun to be around and is positive, and I think that’s kind of contagious for the program and for everybody.”

After 14 years with Dave Rose at the helm of the BYU men’s basketball program, it came as a shock to most people once the announcement of his retirement was made public. But more importantly, people were very interested to see who would be the next coach to lead the Cougars.

So far, it seems Cougar Nation (and BYU officials) are happy with the decision to bring in Pope.

The first-year coach has already accumulated a 23-7 overall record, 12-3 WCC, as the Cougars prepare to end the regular season at Pepperdine on Saturday. No. 17 BYU also made a return to the AP Top 25 Poll two weeks ago for the first time in nine years.

A win against the Waves will secure a No. 2 seed in the West Coast Conference Tournament. But more importantly, it will continue to boost the Cougars' resume as they prepare to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

“It is not smart and [it’s] incredibly dangerous to follow the greatest coach that ever coached the program, that accomplished things that coach [Rose] did that will probably never be repeated in the history of BYU in the next 100 years,” Pope said. “That is not smart.”

But so far Pope has managed to keep up with expectations. And perhaps even exceed them.

With BYU back in the national spotlight, is it a direct result of having Pope lead the Cougars or did the first-year coach luck out on inheriting a solid team from Rose?

Maybe a bit of both. But there is a case to be made that Pope didn’t quite know what type of team he was inheriting.

When Pope was hired, the Cougars’ best player (Yoeli Childs) was set on joining the NBA draft, and transfers Jake Toolson and Alex Barcello weren’t in the mix yet. Also, while TJ Haws came into BYU with heavy expectations as part of the Lone Peak 3, he is just now having a true breakout season.

Back at the end-of-the-season banquet last year, Durrant had no inkling the Cougars would be having the success they are having this season. If anything, things looked a little grim considering BYU would have a new coach, be without its best player and was coming off a year that wasn’t as successful as the rest of Rose’s tenure.

“I mean, the way they ended that year was pretty miserable,” Durrant said. “So, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of reason to think BYU would do what they’ve done. … I think some nice things fell into place for Mark. I think he would have done really well without all those breaks because he’s a great coach, but it certainly helped him to have this kind of senior leadership — so many seniors in the pipeline and the program that Dave Rose built. It’s been easier for him to step in and do the things that he’s done.”

Yet, Pope maintains the success of the program doesn’t have much to do with him. Instead, he says, it’s all about this group of players he’s been fortunate to work with, especially the three seniors leading the team right now.

Pope believes their stories are just so epic, there was no way fans wouldn't connect with them.

Childs gave up an opportunity to go pro to come back to BYU one more year and play for a coach he had never met. Toolson could have transferred to any big-name program after graduating from Utah Valley, but instead returned to the one place he wasn’t successful. Haws had to fight everyone’s high expectations and the pressure that goes along with that.

Then there's seniors Zac Seljaas and Dalton Nixon, who Pope considers “the greatest team players in America.”

“That's the connection,” Pope said. “The connection is between these players and everyone that gets to witness what they do. And it's pretty special.”

But Pope has had a little something to do with that, too.

“He’s brought so much to this program, but he just has so much energy and he works so hard," said Haws. "You never really see him taking days off or taking time off. He’s always up in his office. He’s always working. He’s always trying to figure out what to do next and that kind of energy is contagious to all of our guys. All of our guys feel that and we want to be the best we can be. And he’s leading that charge.”

There's also something about BYU that allows new coaches to come in and be immediately successful.

Four of the last five coaches, including Pope, had 20-win seasons their first year as head coach.

LaDell Anderson won 20 games in 1983-84, Roger Reid won 21 games in 1989-90 and Rose won 20 games in 2005-06. Steve Cleveland was the only one to not meet that mark — only winning nine games — in 1997-98.

However, Cleveland also inherited a BYU squad that only won one game the season prior. So, nine wins was seen as a success at the time.

This season, with 23 wins already (the most by any first-year coach in program history) and a chance to add a few more, the men’s basketball program has already elevated its image.

“I think wins do that,” said Greg Wrubell, BYU’s longtime radio play-by-play man. “I really think the visibility comes courtesy of games like [Gonzaga] Saturday night, and he is a beneficiary of that. He is a beneficiary of the work his players have done to earn those wins, like the one they got on Saturday night.”

Pope has also been able to change the image of BYU men’s basketball by tweaking the Cougars’ offense.

BYU has always been known for fast-paced games and stellar shooting, but Pope has made the Cougars into the best 3-point shooting team in the nation. Last year, with a shorter 3-point line, the Cougars shot 33% from beyond the arc. This year, they’re shooting 42%.

Durrant believes Pope is aware of the fact that BYU will always be at a disadvantage with Gonzaga or Kansas athletically or size wise. Because BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it can make it harder to recruit athletes — particularly if they are not members of the church.

“From a coaching perspective, I think he’s been very smart to realize where he can be good and compete in today’s college basketball,” Durrant said. “And that is shooting a lot of threes and getting good looks at the three-point shot, I think is the great equalizer in college basketball.”

Once Pope wraps up his first season as coach at BYU, it will be interesting to see if the former Milwaukee Buck will be able to establish his own tradition, like that of his predecessor.

At the moment, Pope said he is unsure if he’ll be able to match Rose’s success or leave a similar mark as the beloved former coach, but he is sure this team right now can leave its mark.

Back in the “Jimmer-mania” era, everyone wanted to be part of the experience, whether is was as a fan, a coach, an administrator or something else. It feels like people are once again invested in this BYU squad to that same degree.

“I don’t know about eras, I do know that this team has a chance to be remembered for a long time,” Pope said. “I do know they’ve accomplished things already that puts them in pretty rarefied air, and I’m so hopeful that they can keep going.”

BYU AT PEPPERDINE

At Firestone Fieldhouse, Malibu, Calif.


Tipoff » Saturday, 4 p.m. MST

TV » CBS Sports Network

Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius 143.

Records » BYU 23-7, 12-3; Pepperdine 15-14, 8-7

Series » BYU leads 15-9

Last meeting » BYU 107, Pepperdine 80 (Jan. 30)


About BYU » The Cougars have won their last eight, most recently upsetting Gonzaga 91-78 last Saturday. … No. 17 BYU is ranked in the AP Poll for a second straight week and entered the USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 18 for the first time since ending the 2010-11 season ranked No. 12. … Yoeli Childs was named the WCC Player of the Week for Feb. 24 after averaging 25.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in leading BYU to wins over Santa Clara and the No. 2 Zags.

About Pepperdine » Seniors Kameron Edwards and Robbie Skead will be honored before the game. … The Waves have locked in a top-six finish in the WCC and could finish as high as tied for fourth with a win and two Pacific losses. … Pepperdine hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent since beating No. 20 Wisconsin at home on Nov. 27, 2004.

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