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Jeff Judkins is excited to be back at Utah, but he also wasn’t ready to be done at BYU

The longtime Cougars head coach said he was asked to retire last year after 21 seasons in Provo.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Judkins, then the head coach of the BYU women's basketball team, reacts to a call by the officials in a game against the Utah Utes on Dec. 10, 2016. Judkins has joined the Utes' staff as an assistant coach after retiring from BYU last year.

The courting process to bring Jeff Judkins to Utah started quickly after he retired as BYU’s head basketball coach.

Utah’s Lynne Roberts reached out to her longtime coaching rival after the announcement was made. When the topic of his future came up in that conversation, Judkins indicated he didn’t know what lay ahead.

A few months later, Roberts invited Judkins over for lunch where she pitched him the idea of joining her staff. The interest was there, but Judkins wanted more time to process the end of 21 years in Provo.

Nearly a year later, the processing is over: Judkins is ready to get back to coaching and ready to return to his alma mater in Salt Lake City. He is Roberts’ latest full-time addition to her coaching staff. He is happy to be there, he said, and the hope is he will be a piece that lifts the Utes to their first women’s Final Four.

“It’d be pretty cool if he made the Final Four [as an assistant] on the men’s side and the women’s side,” Roberts said.

But Judkins is also happy for another reason: He says he wasn’t entirely ready to leave basketball in the first place.

When BYU announced his retirement in April 2022, Judkins had just taken the Cougars to a 10th NCAA Tournament. He was the West Coast Conference coach of the year. The program was nationally ranked.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah men's basketball head coach Rick Majerus, right, screams at the ref earning himself a technical foul during a game in 1998. Then-assistant coach Jeff Judkins is behind.

“I’m planning on coming back,” Judkins told The Tribune in March. “I’m planning on being here.”

Then in April, he announced his retirement.

But, Judkins said recently, it wasn’t entirely his decision.

“I think the administration felt like it was a good time to try, if I was going to retire, to get somebody there before the Big 12,” Judkins said. “Get somebody established a little bit. I don’t think you’re ever ready for retirement.”

Judkins said he didn’t have any retirement talks with athletic director Tom Holmoe before BYU’s season ended with a loss to Villanova in the first round. It wasn’t as though he had never thought about it himself. But he said he was surprised when BYU came to him ready to make a move.

“I can say a lot about it. It happens, you know, people make decisions,” Judkins said. “I mean, I think I was somewhat ready, you know? When you’re 66, you think about it. I didn’t want to coach forever. I didn’t want to be one of those coaches that just sat there and coached forever.”

Still, he said he expected to lead BYU into the Big 12.

“Yeah, I wanted to be there,” he said. “I think every coach, it’s one of the hardest things to decide when it’s time. You know? The athletes have the same issue. And it’s why you see so many people, they retire and they come back, or they drag it out longer than they probably should have.”

BYU declined to comment for this story.

Judkins, however, made it clear he does not harbor any ill feelings toward BYU.

“I enjoyed my time there. I mean, I was there for over 20-some years,” he said. “And when I took the program over, they were decent. Hopefully, I made them better during my time. ... I enjoyed everything about it.”

During a recent interview, Judkins reiterated several times he was excited to return to his alma mater as it prepares to make a deep March run.

But he acknowledged it had been difficult to step away from BYU, particularly given the program’s recent success. He would’ve stepped away earlier, he said, if he thought the program was in decline.

“If the negative part overpowers the positives then it’s time to move on,” he said. “... I wanted to coach as long as I felt healthy and as long as I felt like I [was] doing a good job. As long as I’m productive in the things that I’m doing. And I think I proved that when I left BYU. We had the best year ever that year. You know, we should have gone farther in the NCAA Tournament.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins with his retired jersey in the Highland High School gym, Tuesday August 1, 2017.

After he left, he compared the feeling to the death of a parent.

“I always knew my parents were going to pass away some time,” he said. “And you think you’re prepared for it, and then your parents pass away and you’re not as ready as you think. It’s the same in coaching.

“You build this program up to where you want it and, eventually, you know you’re going to walk away from it. But you’re never really quite ready for it. It’s why you see so many people struggle. You see so many coaches struggle with making that decision in retirement.”

Both Judkins and the U. believe he has more to offer.

Earlier this month, Judkins accepted a role as an assistant coach for player development at Utah. He will also serve as a community ambassador.

It seems a natural fit. Judkins played for the Utes and later coached at Utah for a decade.

The job has also been tailored to provide the balance Judkins was looking for at this point in his career: a chance to coach that still affords him time to be around his family. The assistant coaching role is allowed to recruit on-campus, but not off campus. So Judkins will be on the road less.

Judkins said he is also excited to focus on player development.

“They got some good bigs. You know, Jenna [Johnson] and Alissa Pili are very good. These young kids have some good potential,” Judkins said.

Judkins will work with Utah’s defense and frontcourt to start. Arguably, that is where the Utes need the most help: They average nearly 90 points per game, but could use more depth inside. LSU exposed that in the Sweet 16 last year.

Utah brought in a bit more size from the transfer portal. Samantha Crispe, a 6-2 forward from Boston University will join the team this year. Nene Sow, a 6-8 center from Northeastern Oklahoma, will be avaible after redshirting last year. Reese Ross, the 6-2 South Dakota high school player of the year, has also arrived on campus this fall.

Judkins will work with all of them.

And Roberts expects that to pay dividends.

“It is a game of inches, and I think we are going to be really good,” she said. “But I don’t want to be really good; I want to be the best. I think he can help us take a step forward.”

Judkins is looking forward to that chance.

“Excited to have the opportunity to be a part of it,” he said.