Belly buttons, butterflies and root beer floats – The drive behind BYU women’s basketball head coach Jeff Judkins
With the sixth overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics selected Larry Bird out of Indiana State. Twenty-four picks later, the Celtics used their second-round pick to take Jeff Judkins from the University of Utah.
The careers of Bird and Judkins would go on to be very different, but both would strike gold along their own paths.
Bird spent 13 seasons with the Celtics, winning three NBA MVPs and three NBA titles. Following his playing career, Bird led the Indiana Pacers as head coach from 1997-2000, winning NBA Coach of the Year in 1998.
Judkins spent two years on the Celtics, followed by time with Utah, Detroit and Portland. Over his NBA career, Judkins averaged 5.4 points, 1.6 rebounds and one assist.
Judkins was an outstanding player, but he has found longstanding success leading teams from the sideline as a coach.
Starting in 1989, Judkins spent 10 years as an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team at his alma mater, the University of Utah.
Judkins made the move to Provo in 1999 to help with the BYU women’s team, becoming the head coach two years later.
Judkins came roaring out of the gates with BYU, leading the Cougars to their first-ever Sweet 16 appearance in his first season.
The women’s basketball team continued to see a steady diet of NCAA Tournament appearances with Judkins at the helm, making the Big Dance in 10 of his 20 seasons.
Assistant coach Ray Stewart has been alongside Judkins for 11 years. He points out Judkins’ passion for the game as a reason for his success.
“Every day he comes in and he’s standing up in practice giving it his all,” Stewart said. “There’s certain days where he doesn’t feel his best and you can’t tell something is bothering him.”
This is the same message Judkins relayed to his team in the midcourt huddle of a February practice.
“If there’s one thing you learn from me in your career, don’t give excuses, just do it,” he said.
Judkins then jovially told the team excuses are like belly buttons, everybody has one.
Despite his success over the last two decades, Judkins’ team this year might be his best yet. Even Judkins will admit it.
When asked if this is one of the better teams he’s coached, Judkins is quick to tell you that is not in question.
If you watch this team, it isn’t hard to tell there is something special about it. They finished the regular season with the best record in school history to show for it.
Judkins was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year on March 9 as a testament to the Cougars’ success this season.
A large reason for the success of this team is the fifth-year seniors who took advantage of an extra COVID-19 year.
One of those fifth-year seniors, Paisley Harding, has been a key cog for Judkins over the last five seasons.
“He means a lot to me. I attribute a lot of my success to him,” Harding said. “He has a lot of trust in me which brings me a lot of confidence.”
This relationship was illustrated during a practice in Harding’s sophomore season. While the team was doing a competition, Harding told Judkins he had to get the team root beer floats if they accomplished the task. The team did, and Judkins went along with it; root beer floats were enjoyed after practice.
While this year’s team is full of fun and smiles, they’re playing for more than root beer floats.
“We’re not satisfied with just getting into the NCAA Tournament. In the past it’s been that,” Judkins said.
Judkins has made it as far as the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament twice. Both times the Cougars were an 11-seed, having to win two games as an underdog.
This year Judkins and the Cougars will almost certainly find themselves in a situation they’ve never been in.
The regular season WCC Champions are currently projected by ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Crème to be a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would be the highest-ever for a BYU team.
If there is ever a year for Judkins to make a deep run in March and go out with a bang, this is it.
Beyond this year, the future is unknown for Judkins and the Cougars. BYU will lose four key seniors and face a tough transition to the Big 12 in 2023.
“I am getting up there and a lot of people my age are starting to retire,” Judkins said. “They’ve come and asked when I’m going to do it.”
Judkins has always waited until the end of the year to think about retirement. Most of the time, it’s not even a thought; he knows he’s coming back.
This year is set to pose a different process.
Judkins will play the season out and assess things at the end of the year. Most importantly, Judkins wants his players to know where he stands. “I don’t want to fail them.”
Whether this is it or not, Judkins will have left a legacy at BYU. He is the winningest coach in program history and the only coach to take a BYU women’s team beyond the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
As far as knowing when it is time to call it a career, Judkins knows what to look for.
“I’ll retire when I lose the butterflies in my stomach and the competitiveness to coaching,” he said.
With spring approaching and March Madness around the corner, there is no greater time for butterflies.
It is clear Judkins and the Cougars have their competitive edge this year, but as for the future, Judkins may be going dancing for the last time.