BYU basketball assistant coach Mark Pope is set to announce his decision to leave the program today after nearly four years on the job to fill the head coaching vacancy at nearby Utah Valley University.
CBS Sports was first to report the move on Monday, and early reports were met with a mix of emotions from BYU fans. The Cougar faithful expressed their genuine happiness for Pope — after all, getting a head job at the Division I level is a dream of almost any coach and not everyone gets the chance — but also weren't shy about their disappointment in seeing him move on. Pope was well-liked in Provo, both for his genial personality and coaching prowess, and the former NBA big man will leave sizable shoes (both figuratively and literally) to fill on the Cougars' bench.
Here's a quick look at what Pope's exit means for BYU — and who might be potential candidates to fill the program's new found coaching vacancy.
What It Means
As mentioned, Pope was exceptionally well-liked at BYU, both because he was genuinely a nice guy and because people respected what he brought to the team from a basketball perspective.
Most importantly, he used that big personality to become Dave Rose's most effective recruiter, helping to bring a number of heralded recruits to Provo. For one, four-star prospect Payton Dastrup would almost certainly not be donning Cougar blue after his mission if it weren't for his close relationship with Pope throughout his recruitment.
But it wasn't all about recruiting and being a nice guy who high school kids think is cool. (Although, again, that's really important.) Pope was also, nominally at least, BYU's defensive coach — and while the results on that end of the floor were decidedly mixed the past few seasons, he's well-respected for his knowledge of schemes and ability to recognize plays and rotations as they develop.
In addition to his defensive responsibilities, Pope was also primarily tasked with developing the Cougars' big men, and while some may argue that he hasn't overseen much progress on that front, he's turned in pretty solid results given the talent he had to work with. If you liked the way Corbin Kaufusi dramatically improved over the course of this past season — and I think we all did — then you have Mark Pope to thank for that, at least in part. He's a pretty great developer of talent, when it's there.
So clearly BYU is facing a significant blow losing a coach of Pope's caliber. And because he played so many important roles for the program, he won't be easily replaced. Whoever ends up getting the job will likely need to be both a gregarious recruiter and defensive-minded strategist that can help the Cougars take the next step with a huge influx of talent coming into the program over the next few years.
Like I said, Mark Pope has some mighty big shoes.
So who might be called upon to try to fill them? Well, no one really knows at this point — but we can at least posit a few names that may wind up in the ring for consideration. I've included some of the most likely candidates, along with my analysis, below.
But before we jump into that, this needs to be said up front: Dave Rice is absolutely, positively not walking through that door by any stretch of the imagination. Within minutes of the Pope news breaking, social media and message boards lit up with hopeful Cougar fans breathlessly speculating about the former Rose assistant and current UNLV coach's imminent return. Ain't. Gonna. Happen. Rice already has the top job in Las Vegas for at least one more year, and even if he didn't, he's recently fielded other offers for head coaching jobs elsewhere. So if he does end up leaving the desert, it definitely won't be to scurry back to Provo. That scenario is D.O.A.
Now that we've got that straightened out, let's turn our attention to a few candidates who actually do have a reasonable chance at winding up on Rose's staff next season.
Background: Lewis is currently the head coach at Lone Peak High School in Alpine, Utah and is predominantly known for a) winning a whole bunch of championships and b) funneling a whole bunch of top recruits to BYU. Before his time with the Knights, he was an assistant coach at Southern Utah, Utah Valley and BYU-Hawaii. He also played for Rose at Dixie State before moving onto a Division-I career at Wagner.
Why He Might Fit: Lewis is probably the choice most fans would gravitate toward. Many have already floated his name as a potential replacement as the head coach should Rose decide to retire at the end of his current contract, despite the fact that Quincy is still, you know, a high school coach. So the love for Quincy Lewis is undoubtedly strong in Cougar nation — and for good reason. He's a very strong candidate. He was a finalist for the job when Pope was hired four years ago, and he obviously has a close relationship with Rose dating back several decades. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's proven himself to be a heck of a coach at the high school level, and brings nearly a decade of experience as an assistant at the college level to boot. When you factor in the close relationship he has with several of BYU's key incoming players, it becomes very easy to see the pros to a Lewis hiring. No wonder so many people are already on board.
Why He Might Not: While many see his jump to BYU as inevitable, it's possible that this may not be the right time for Lewis to join the staff. Remember, Pope is leaving some very specific roles to be filled. Rose needs to hire a strong recruiter — and there's some question about whether he can really be that gregarious presence on the trail that Pope so clearly was. Quincy is a pretty intense guy, and while that has translated into success as a head coach at the high school level, it may not necessarily make him the best option to get buddy-buddy with potential recruits. Naturally, sources close to Lewis have pushed back against this narrative, claiming that the coach has proven his ability to recruit well as an assistant at his previous collegiate stops. But after being out of the recruiting game for so long and with BYU needing such a specific role filled, Rose may lean another direction and leave Lewis tending the program's Lone Peak pipeline for a little longer.
Background: Peery spent the past year as an assistant to Herb Sendek at Arizona State. But with Sendek's recent ouster, he finds himself back on the job market. Prior to joining the Sun Devils, Peery spent six years as the head man at junior college powers Indian Hills Community College and College of Southern Idaho, compiling a combined record of 178-30 and helping 38 players jump to the D-I level. He has also served as an assistant coach at Utah, Southern Utah and Portland State.
Why He Might Fit: BYU needs a recruiter, and if there's one thing Peery can do, it's recruit — especially in Utah. There's a reason the Sun Devils have been in the mix for such a high number of top recruits in the Beehive State over the past year, including Frank Jackson, Gavin Baxter and Brendan Bailey (who actually once committed to the school). It's not because Sendek finally saw the light and decided to start recruiting Utah. It's because of Peery's deep connections to and experience in the area — and that kind of expertise and track record is something Rose could desperately use in his next assistant. Oh, and he's proven himself to be a pretty successful basketball coach, too. That seems important to consider.
Why He Might Not: First of all, there's no indication that Peery would even want the job. He has no clear ties to BYU beyond being LDS. In fact, he has the opposite of ties — he coached under Jim Boylen at Utah. It's entirely possible that he may just not want to be associated with the university and all the headaches that come with trying to recruit kids and keep them eligible in Provo. That's not beyond the realm of possibility. That being said, if he was interested, other questions remain. While Peery is undoubtedly a great recruiter and proven winner as a head coach, his defensive track record is unclear. His junior college teams played an up-tempo style very similar to what Rose runs with the Cougars and scored a lot of points, but as we've seen the past few years, that kind of focus often ends up giving short-shrift the other end of the floor — and that's not something BYU can afford to continue to do. Could Peery bring a renewed defensive vigor? The jury is out.
Background: Jones has been an assistant coach at Utah State for seven seasons now, and has been tasked with leading the Aggies' in-state recruiting efforts. He previously coached and played at Utah.
Why He Might Fit: Jones is very respected locally, and was a top candidate for the Utah Valley job that ultimately went to Pope. He's been around for a long time and certainly has connections to local high school and AAU coaches, which is key for in-state recruiting efforts. It's possible he could be ready to jump to a bigger school and more high-profile program if the terms were right.
Why He Might Not: I'm skeptical that Jones is actually available. After not landing the Utah Valley gig and with fellow assistant Tim Duryea being elevated to head coach at Utah State, Jones figures to be the prime candidate for the top assistant post in Logan. When you couple that with the fact that he, like Peery, has absolutely zero previous ties to Rose or BYU, I'm just having trouble seeing anything happening. Then again, maybe he's looking to move up the ladder, program-wise — one can never really tell.
The Wild Cards
These guys probably won't be in the final mix, but there's enough of a compelling reason here to at least keep your eyes peeled.
Mark Madsen: The longtime NBA big man is currently an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Beyond being a frequent visitor to the LDS singles-filled waters of Provo, there's no connection with BYU here — but maybe he'd like to make his fishing ground into a more permanent home? A source tells Vanquish The Foe that Madsen declined to even put his name in the hat for the Utah Valley head job, so it's tough to see him leaving the NBA right now for an assistant gig. But you never know.
Britton Johnson: This is a name that keeps popping up online. He played at Utah and then spent a few years as an NBA journeyman before heading overseas. He obviously knows the game, but I can't find any indication that he's actually coached before. According to his Twitter account, he's currently working as an analyst for the Utah Jazz and a development officer at a nonprofit organization. (Not to mention that he has nonexistent ties to the program.) That doesn't exactly scream "D-I assistant coach" to me, but I guess stranger things have happened.
Austin Ainge: Of all our wild cards, this one seems the most likely to me. Ainge is currently the Director of Player Personnel for the Boston Celtics, after spending multiple years as a scout for the organization and two seasons as head coach of the D-League's Maine Red Claws. He's been successful at the professional level, learned under one of the best in Brad Stevens, and definitely has close ties to Rose and to BYU as a former player. If he wants to go the college route, an assistant job at his alma mater seems like a sensible next step — but he may still be a few years away from making that jump. That said, I fully expect Austin Ainge to wind up on a BYU bench at some time in the future. The only question is "When?"