Gordon Monson: In hiring Kevin Young, BYU is doing something it’s never done before

With an assist from the Utah Jazz’s Ryan Smith and Danny Ainge, the Cougars make a move that could truly alter their future.

(Ross D. Franklin | AP) Phoenix Suns coach Kevin Young, right, argues with referee Mousa Dagher, left, after a foul was called against the Suns during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Phoenix. The Suns won 115-97.

There’s great news and good news for BYU, even in the most unlikely event that it just made a horrible mistake in hiring Kevin Young as its new basketball coach.

Mark this moment down as a transformative one for the Cougars.

They swung for the fences and, rather surprisingly — no, rather shockingly — got good wood on a heater launched out of the yard and into the deep-darkest-shade-of-royal-blue night. Let’s see, how to best illustrate this. BYU landing Young is like Freddie Patek, the old Kansas City Royals shortstop, all 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds of him, drilling a walk-off grand slam back in the day, something he never did, not once, over a long MLB career.

It’s like … what? … it’s like … BYU winning an NCAA Tournament game.

Yeah, it’s that outrageous.

While former coach Mark Pope was off to Kentucky, sweet-talking the folks back in Lexington, doing what he could to win every press conference, to win over a mighty fan base divided by his hire, BYU was busy gathering in money, using the influence of two of the school’s best-known alums — Ryan Smith and Danny Ainge — to reel in Young. Without those two, this hire doesn’t happen. And maybe it was the other way around, Smith and Ainge talking BYU into allowing them to use their cash and influence to make the deal.

Either way, it takes that kind of firepower to lure to Provo a coach who was one of the NBA’s highest-paid assistants, a guy who was a candidate for multiple head coaching jobs in the NBA, and if you buy into one report already had turned down an NBA head coaching offer. Let’s say it like it is: Being a coach in the NBA has its competitive challenges, and the demands are heavy, but from a lifestyle standpoint, it’s easier than college coaching, where the span of responsibility is both plentiful and diverse. Walking away from the former for the latter requires incentive in the form of something special, usually high stacks of cash.

Young was making $2 million a year as Phoenix’s top assistant, and dialing in on making a whole lot more as an NBA top dog. Doing so, becoming that, was a mere matter of time for the highly respected, 42-year-old Young.

So what does he do instead? Takes the BYU job.

And because the Cougars were able to get him, they’ve hired a better basketball mind than the one they’re replacing. Pope has considerably more experience in the college game, being familiar with the ins and outs of recruiting, of NIL, of managing the transfer portal, of being the CEO of a program, but Young was considered a brilliant basketball mind, even among stiff competition in the greatest basketball league on the planet. So, he’s got that going for him, which is nice. The rest of it, he’ll have to grow accustomed to in a hurry. He’ll have to hire seasoned assistants — Chris Burgess, hello — to help him get along.

But because of what’s next to discuss here, getting quality assistants, whoever they end up being, shouldn’t be a problem.

BYU will never voluntarily reveal what it pays its coaches. In the past, that’s been as much because it’s embarrassed to admit the paltry numbers in its contracts as much as because it’s a private school that isn’t required to ‘fess up.

But a report by CBSSports’ Matt Norlander now says Young will be paid $30 million over seven years for his deal. You read that right … $30 million. That’s not news at a lot of big-eyed basketball and football schools around the country, but at BYU, that’s mind blowing. Somewhere, LaVell Edwards and Stan Watts are rolling over, doing bear crawls in a mix of amazement and jealousy.

The only way that’s possible is by way of contributions from Smith and maybe a couple other boosters. Heretofore, BYU has attempted to run major programs on middling budgets. To quote Inspector Clouseau, “Nooot anymooore.”

What the school is doing with Young is next level. Even though boosters have been willing to — and, in fact, have — chipped in some with helping raise salaries of certain coaches, the school, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been reluctant to approve handing out big-money contracts. Ironic, considering the church is estimated to be worth upwards of $300 billion.

The money, apparently, is now flowing more freely. Smith has to be a big part of that. The man owns the Jazz, he owns part of Real Salt Lake, he’s about to own an NHL team, and he wants his alma mater to thrive in a sport he regularly plays on the court he’s built into his house in Alpine. His truck, along with his buddy, Ainge, is significant at BYU.

What all of this signals is a new level of commitment to sports at the school.

It’s been a long time coming.

And it’s easy to conclude that Young wouldn’t have turned his back on other prime basketball opportunities without assurance that more money will be available to address proper resource needs of other kinds.

A video of athletic director Tom Holmoe was released recently of him saying, “BYU is different.” It is different in a lot of strange ways, but its path to winning is not different. It requires what is required wherever winning is prioritized — with the financial backing, one way or another, for quality head and assistant coaching, to build and maintain facilities, to haul in necessary recruits, to fund ample NIL distributions, to pay the price for victory. That price ain’t cheap.

How good a coach will Young be? As mentioned, he knows the game, but there have been coaches before him who had memorized every X and every O, but who failed nonetheless. He has much to learn, and that’s why drawing in expert assistants, those who know the college game, will be huge for him. Throw money at Burgess and those who are close to the Utah assistant say he, too, would join the Cougar cause. We’ll see.

BYU has issues that need immediate attention — such as players in the transfer portal that closes soon, the team already having suffered losses of formerly committed players. If Young stays with the Suns through the playoffs, how will the ship be guided in the meantime? Good question.

The new coach has a background that runs from associate head coach with the Suns and assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers to head coach of the Shamrock Rovers Hoops in Ireland to top jobs at three different G League teams. Along the way, he coached at Utah Valley and Oxford College. He once was a guard on a team at a Division II school.

Bottom line, this is an improbable and downright wild hire for BYU, one that proves the school is, in this case at least and perhaps others to come, closing the door on its reputation as a laughable little outfit that took sports seriously only to the extent it fit into its limited, cloistered, confining box. All as its fan base forever took sports deathly serious.

Other issues remain, such as overcoming an emphasis on a single religion and a peculiar honor code, but it could be that a language spoken by darn near everyone — money — and a willingness to use it, to allow it to be used, is the thing that finally bridges that expansive gap.