The Speedy ascension of Mark ‘The Young’ Pope
In just one season as head coach, Mark Pope has proven himself as the best thing to happen to BYU Basketball since Jimmer Fredette
It didn’t take long for Mark Pope to seal his name in the annals of BYU Basketball history.
In his debut season as head coach, the man who Fox Sports’ Tate Frazier refers to as “Young Pope” led the Cougars on a 24-8 campaign that, if not for the novel coronavirus, would have culminated with BYU’s 30th-ever March Madness appearance.
By elevating the Cougars to their first AP Top 25 ranking since “Jimmermania” in 2011, Pope accomplished something that BYU fans have been waiting on for nearly a decade: he ushered the team back into college basketball relevance.
Pope, however, doesn’t see himself as the impetus behind the Cougars’ sudden resurgence. He directs all the praise to the team he inherited, which included four returning starters.
“They were so hungry and willing to set it all aside,” Pope said in an interview on the Titus & Tate podcast in April. “Nobody really sets aside their personal agenda, but what our guys were willing to do was try as hard as they could to trust the game. If they gave themselves to the game, then the game was going to pay them back double than their own agenda.”
Of course, the players redirected that praise right back at their coach.
“He’s brought so much to this program, but he just has so much energy and he works so hard. You never really see him taking days off or taking time off,” starting guard TJ Haws told The Salt Lake Tribune in February. “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.”
In addition to earning his players’ respect through his work ethic, Pope also managed to win over the hearts of the Cougar fan base with his enthusiasm. After BYU’s surprising 91-78 victory over No. 2 Gonzaga in February, the coach invited fans to celebrate with him at a local eatery where he picked up a $1,800 tab.
Some may chalk up Pope’s impressive first year to beginner’s luck, and he could be in danger of a one-hit-wonder label if the 2021 season doesn’t mirror success in 2020. While only the future can truly reveal Pope’s legacy as a coach, a closer look at his recent track record before BYU shows this might not be a fluke.
During his four years as head coach at Utah Valley University, Pope led the Wolverines to a 17-win season in 2017, a 23-win season in 2018, and a program-best 25-win season in 2019 before signing with BYU the following April. Pope isn’t lucky, he’s methodical.
Under Pope’s offense, BYU’s three-point percentage jumped from 33.0% in 2019 (240th overall) to 42.3% in 2020 (first overall) — notwithstanding that this year the three-point line was pushed back from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1¾ inches. At the season’s close, BYU’s offense ranked third overall in efficiency according to teamrankings.com.
Pope’s scheming doesn’t stop at the chalkboard either, as some of his most notable successes have occurred during the offseason. He has quickly built a reputation as a fierce recruiter.
In May, he landed Purdue’s star center Matt Haarms, a player who was being pursued by both Kentucky and Texas Tech. BYU was also in the conversation to pick up Georgetown’s firecracker guard Mac McClung, who ultimately signed with Texas Tech. Before Pope, BYU was not known as a destination for high-profile transfers, but this offseason is showing signs that players are starting to see the program in a new light.
There’s a clear reason why Pope was a finalist for the 2020 Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year Award and was labeled CBS Sports’ No.1 Most Rewarding New Hire, the first wave of what will surely amount to many accolades during his (hopefully) lengthy tenure at Brigham Young University. As a BYU student (probably) once said, “Long live the Young Pope.”
Nate Schwartz is a guest contributor for the Daily Universe. He is a BYU alumnus and recent graduate of the master’s of journalism program at Northwestern University.