Except for someone like Duke’s Mike Kryzyzewski or Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Utah Valley coach Mark Pope might have the most job security in college basketball.
Pope recently signed an extension through the 2023-24 basketball season. Who gets a contract like that, except maybe Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott?
The difference is that Pope is paid a base of $250,000 — that’s less than first-year UA assistant coach Justin Gainey’s $290,000 — and receives an extra $25,000 if he can schedule “money games” that total at least $150,000 per year.
Pope’s Wolverines were guaranteed $90,000 to play at McKale Center on Thursday, losing 80-69 and combined with the revenue from stops at BYU — a game that drew 14,628 — and an expected sellout at Big Sky Conference favorite Weber State later this month, Utah Valley should reach its $150,000.
And it’s not that Pope isn’t earning his check. When his Wolverines took a 35-25 lead over Arizona late in the first half Thursday, the laces on a shoe of Utah Valley guard TJ Washington came loose.
Referee Verne Harris stopped play. Pope walked onto the court, bent down and patiently tied Washington’s shoe.
Let’s see Coach K do that.
The Wolverines were hardly intimidated on a sleepy December night at McKale Center, which looked to be about 2,000 below capacity. When Utah Valley took a 41-29 lead at halftime, the Wolverines walked calmly off the court. No chest-bumping. No dancing to the locker room.
It’s a testament to the recent growth of WAC programs like Utah Valley and Grand Canyon not to be cowed by the moment.
A year ago, Pope agreed to open the season on back-to-back nights at No. 1 Duke and No. 5 Kentucky for a combined $175,000. After you’ve done that, Thursday’s game against unranked Arizona was not overwhelming.
“We’re not going to stop scheduling these games, but we’ve got to get over the hump and win them,” Pope said outside UVU’s locker room. “You can’t back your way into being a good program.”
Until the second half, McKale didn’t present an atmosphere to compare to what Pope’s Wolverines faced last year in Phoenix, when a sellout of 7,179 at Grand Canyon’s rowdy campus arena squeezed in to watch GCU win a 60-59 game for a battle of superiority in the WAC.
The WAC isn’t remotely as wild as it was during the Arizona-UTEP-BYU-New Mexico days of the 1970s, but there are enough hot pockets — like New Mexico State, GCU and now Utah Valley — that playing at a place like McKale Center isn’t a shock to the nervous system.
But almost predictably, Thursday’s second half was a reality-bites moment.
The McKale crowd awoke and Utah Valley’s lead vanished in three minutes.
“It’s a little different playing at McKale, walking into this arena and seeing all the legendary names on the wall, than it is playing at Grand Canyon,” said Pope. “My memories of this place aren’t fond ones, that’s for sure.”
Pope has seen the late-night lightning at McKale Center before.
In the fall of 1990, Arizona coach Lute Olson visited Pope at his home near Seattle and offered him a scholarship. Pope also had offers from Utah, Cal and the hometown Washington Huskies. Olson hoped to get either Pope or Los Angeles forward Ray Owes for a power forward vacancy.
When Owes committed, the Wildcats no longer needed Pope. That’s life in basketball recruiting.
Now, 28 years later, it’s obvious that it all worked out for the third-year Utah Valley coach.
He became the Pac-10 freshman of the year at Washington, 1990-91, the type of award that gets your name in the Ring of Honor at McKale Center. The first time Pope played against Olson and the Wildcats, January 1992, he started and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Huskies stunned No. 7 Arizona 62-60 in Seattle.
It was five days after UCLA had broken Arizona’s 71-game winning streak at McKale Center. Pope and the Huskies benefited from the UA’s hangover.
That was the last time Pope’s Huskies beat Arizona. They were mashed in Tucson 85-51 a month later and swept during Pope’s sophomore season.
The next time Pope met Arizona — sort of — was at the Maui Classic a few days before Christmas, 1993. Pope had transferred to Kentucky and sat on the bench as Rick Pitino’s Wildcats scored at the buzzer to beat Arizona 93-92 in the championship game.
A year later Pope was Kentucky’s sixth man as UK won the national championship.
Now, at 46, Pope is considered one of the emerging names in college basketball coaching. The next time a Pac-12 team has a coaching vacancy, it’s possible Pope’s name will be in the mix.
If so, he won’t be unfamiliar with the terrain
“When you play a program with a history like Arizona’s, you will always run into a guy like Brandon Randolph,” said Pope. “He hit four 3-pointers early in the second half and that fixed what had been wrong (with Arizona). From there, the intensity picked up. It’s a tough spot for any team.”
“I like this Arizona team; they’ve got a lot of good pieces,” he said. “Not many teams are going to come in here and beat them.”