It was a pointed question to BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins about what he thought about his future beyond the 2021-22 season. The regular season hadn’t yet concluded, and it was more than a month before the Cougars would lose in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game and the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The 66-year-old Judkins, who just finished his 21st season as BYU’s head coach, answered it anyway. He said he usually waits until the end of the year to decide if he’s coming back. In his younger years, it would be an automatic yes.
Nowadays, colleagues his age are starting to retire. The stretches and push-ups he does before practices are getting a bit more difficult. He’s fielding more and more questions about when his turn to hang it up will be.
But even after the Cougars’ season ended over the weekend, Judkins talked about next year. He talked about expectations set. He talked about improvements he can make as a coach. He talked about practicing with the balls used in postseason tournaments to avoid future poor shooting performances.
It was all an indication that Judkins is not yet ready for his 32-year coaching career to end. He still loves the game too much. Loves teaching and caring for his players too much. Loves competing too much.
“I told my girls this year, and I’ve told a lot of my teams this: If you don’t have butterflies before the game, then it’s time to get out,” Judkins said three days prior to facing Villanova. “I still have butterflies, I’m still nervous, I still have that excitement to play.”
And less than a week after BYU’s loss to Gonzaga, Judkins was definitive in his plans for next year.
“Right now, I’m planning on coming back,” Judkins said. “I’m planning on being here.”
BYU just finished a 26-4 season that brought plenty of superlatives. Judkins himself won WCC Coach of the Year for the second straight year. The team reached its highest-ever ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 (No. 15) and highest-ever seed in the NCAA Tournament (No. 6). The team went undefeated at the Marriott Center for the second straight year.
Judkins was at the center of all of it, and has been the constant figure for the Cougars since taking the head job in the 2001-02 season, which ended with a Sweet 16 appearance. The team’s next and most recent run that deep in the NCAA Tournament came in 2013-14.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, Judkins had designs on making an NBA roster. He as an all-state player at Highland High School, while also earning that accolade in baseball and football in the early 1970s.
Still, his eyes were set on professional basketball. The problem was, not many others believed Judkins would make it to the NBA. He ended up proving them wrong — a trait he said is one reason he is still coaching.
“Everything that I did as a young boy, I didn’t want to lose,” Judkins said. “I wanted to be the best and I wanted to do all those things. As you get older, you really don’t lose that. You just keep having that fire.”
That fire is one of the many characteristics his players enjoy about being coached by Judkins. Everything is a competition or challenge. Like telling his players to count how many shots in a row they can make. Or if his team is ahead by 20 points at halftime, he tries to get his players to keep the opponent under 40 total.
But Judkins also has a lighthearted side.
“He’s definitely a character,” Sara Hamson said.
Judkins has become famous for his many “Juddyisms” — analogies or metaphors he makes when trying to make a point. When the lesson is “make the simple play,” for example, he’ll point to the nosebleed seats in the Marriott Center and say something like, “If I told you to run up there, you would use the stairs, not jump over every row of the stadium seating.” That one is Hamson’s favorite.
Maria Albiero was particularly fond of the analogy Judkins uses when a player makes a good move but doesn’t finish it with a basket. The Juddyism for that goes something like this: “Let’s say I took you guys to the store, we buy all the ingredients to make a cake, and then you bake the cake but don’t eat it.”
But what really stands out about Judkins his unique relationship with each and every woman on his team. Freshman guard Nani Falatea has known the BYU coach since middle school, when he first started recruiting her. And even after just one season with the Cougars, Falatea can plainly see what makes him unique.
“He knows everybody personally,” Falatea said. “He cares about us all so much and he knows how to coach each individual person. I think that’s really important.”
The potential of Judkins retiring soon has been on the minds of some of his players. Sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales said she thinks about it sometimes. Falatea said she is “hoping” he stays for her entire tenure with BYU.
Hamson — who like Albiero, Paisley Harding and Tegan Graham played her last collegiate game last weekend — said she has heard multiple times that Judkins will probably retire after “this player or that player” graduates, but he keeps adding younger players to that list.
So in Hamson’s mind, Judkins probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But as she’s watched him over the past five years, she thinks that decision could be made for him.
“He’s just so passionate about the game, I have a hard time seeing him retire on his own,” Hamson said. “You can just tell he’s getting older and I just wonder how much of a toll all this coaching and standing around takes on him.”
For now, though, Judkins still wants to stick around for his players as long as he can.
“I have players that come in that buy into our program, and I don’t want to let them down,” Judkins said. “I want to make sure that they have the best opportunities they possibly can have.”