How Mark Pope transformed UVU into ‘Second-chance U’

Utah Valley University Wolverines men's basketball team, staff and supporters during the Toughest 24 trip on Friday November 10, 2017. (Jay Drowns / Photography)

Akolda Manyang needed to go somewhere he felt safe.

He was still searching for stability shortly after being kicked off the Oklahoma basketball team following an arrest in his home state of Minnesota. He and another man were arrested when they assaulted a cab driver and stole his car keys after a night of drinking.

The incident was the final straw after, a month prior, Manyang punched a former OU football player outside of a bar, knocking out two teeth. He was charged with assault and suspended from the Sooners basketball team indefinitely.

Both incidents came in the aftermath of the sudden, tragic death of Manyang’s 24-year-old brother Ater. The two came to the United States when they were young boys as refugees from Sudan. The death was crushing, forcing Manyang to leave the team during its 2016 Final Four run in the NCAA Tournament.

Back home, he got a call from a coach at Utah Valley University. The staff in Orem, Utah was willing to take a gamble on someone they believed could redress past transgressions. UVU was also the perfect place for someone like Manyang, where the roster was full of players that did not have storybook histories, but wanted to redeem themselves.

By seeking to shape a basketball program from the dust, head coach Mark Pope has unwittingly found his sweet spot in college basketball with second-chance players. It’s an attitude that dovetails with one of the core themes at the open-enrollment institution.

Following a 2018-19 campaign in which the Wolverines won 25 games, Pope’s fourth season with UVU might have been his last. He is largely considered the leading candidate to replace Dave Rose as head coach of BYU, where he was previously an assistant coach. Pope’s name has received increased circulation in the college basketball world of late, even receiving a ringing endorsement via Twitter from his former coach Rick Pitino.

It’s a moment of truth for Pope—he can continue to lead the Wolverines, offering players a chance at redemption by playing for a team trying to make a name for itself—or he can inch his way closer to a blue-blood college basketball program by taking the reins at BYU.

Pope came from the Pitino school of coaching at Kentucky, where he was a co-captain for the 1996 national champion Wildcats. Pitino, whom Pope describes as a hurricane, never shied away from confrontation with his team, often sliding a ring around to the inside of his hand and slapping the knees of his players to keep them on edge during timeouts.

Mark Pope greets Rick Pitino before a game against Westminster College in the UCCU Center on November 6, 2018. Pope played for Pitino from 1994-1996. Photo by Jay Drowns

Conversely, during Pope’s tenure with Indiana under coach Larry Bird in the NBA, Pope found the opposite approach. Bird would spend 70 of the 90 seconds during a timeout sitting on a stool, staring at his team without offering a word. Then Bird would calmly give them one piece of advice.

Through his own career from Washington to Kentucky, and the Turkish Super League to the NBA, Pope realized every player needed a different approach to effectively guide them. An old-school coach might treat every player the same way regardless of the situation, but Pope doesn’t subscribe to that ideology.

 “I don’t do that. And my guys know I don’t do that,” he says.

Other than the four rules and team mantra, which everybody is accountable to, Pope determines what each player needs to develop.

 “I don’t treat everyone the same way, because the truth is, for one player to grow as much as he possibly can, I probably need to ride him relentlessly every single day, because that’s what he will respond to best,” he says. “For some players, what they need is for me to put my arm around them every single day and encourage them … Some guys need me to just give them attention whether it’s positive or negative every day just so they know that I care about them.”

Even if he tried, it’s impossible to treat every player the same way when their circumstances vary so remarkably.

Ivory “Trey” Young was one of Pope’s first transfers when he came to UVU in 2015 for his junior season. After starting nearly every game that first year, Young saw diminished playing time the next year with the influx of four transfer guards to the mix. He says he tried to be the best teammate he could and to lead by example

By his senior season, with a year under his belt, Young acted as the median on a team that blended players from across the world despite his own frustration over lost playing time.

 “I was the person in the middle — the balance guy that could talk to either the black guys or the Mormon guys,” Young says. “I think it helped us a lot.”

After working to regain his spot in the rotation, Young scored a season-high 20 points against Rice in Houston where 150 friends and family were in attendance sporting green shirts. It was the second to last game of his college career.

“I felt like Kobe on his farewell tour,” Young says. “It was easily my funnest game playing college basketball.”

Jake Toolson and Isaac Neilson are two players who share a unique position, having moved just down the road from nearby BYU. After one year with the Cougars, Neilson was told he would not have a spot on the roster the following year. Growing up, Neilson dreamed of playing for BYU and he now felt like he couldn’t stay in Utah because everyone knew he was a failure.

 “He is broken,” Pope says of Neilson after being let go. “You talk about a dream — his only dream — being shattered forever. He’s not good enough to play at BYU…he was ashamed and embarrassed.”

Pope and his staff spent two months trying to recruit him to join their team— then the No. 321-ranked team in the country.

 “We stink! Everyone thought UVU was a junior college, or had maybe gone DII,” says Pope. “He had to take all of that when it became public that he was going to UVU. I can only imagine that everyone doubled down on it saying ‘He sucks, man. He couldn’t even go to another school, he had to go to UVU.’”

A year and a half later and five games into his career as a Wolverine, Neilson walked into the Marriott Center and scored 26 of the team’s 114 points and grabbed nine rebounds to help UVU upset its big brother in a game in which UVU racked up the most points ever scored by an opponent in the building’s 47-year history.

Neilson, clearly the player of the game, was flanked by television and newspaper reporters jamming into the tunnel for a postgame interview. For the player who wasn’t good enough to stay on the roster of BYU, that night, everyone wanted to talk to him.

 “It was confirmation that moving to Utah Valley was the right decision,” Neilson said a day after the win during a guest appearance on KSL’s Sportsbeat program. “When [Pope] was recruiting me I really felt like he cared for me as a coach. He gave me a vision of who I can become.”

Isaac Neilson is surrounded by family and friends after scoring 26 points against his former team, BYU, in the Marriott Center on Saturday November 26, 2016. Photo by Jay Drowns

 “There’s a real redemption that can happen in our program,” Pope says. “The opportunity to come here and have another chance to take a shot at being better than anybody thinks you can. Everybody’s written you off — they’ve discarded you—they said, you had your shot and you failed. You get to come here and try again and prove that every single one of those doubters was wrong — that’s magic.”

If Pope is offered the job at BYU and he decides to leave UVU, he will no longer be able to bring in second-chance players the way he has at UVU. The honor code BYU’s basketball players are required to sign in order to attend school could curtail Pope’s ability to sign players who are on the fence about living the code’s standards.

After coaches take a new job at a new school, they often want to prove their ability to recruit and in turn sign a class of freshman to their roster.

It can doom a coach when a group of players are signed before it’s known how good the team has to be, what kind of coach they’re going to be, what type of player personalities that coach has an ability to lead and especially in a new, unfamiliar conference where the level and style of play is unknown.

In the weeks after he was hired by UVU, Pope spent time talking to other coaches around the country. One conversation with Nick Robinson, then-coach of Southern Utah, left an impression on him.

Robinson felt he was stuck with a group of players for four to five years who weren’t quite good enough and didn’t fit the style of play of their league. Things went sideways and he was fired before he had the chance to recruit the roster he wanted.

 “Nick only got that one class for his time at Southern Utah. He really had one shot and he took that shot before he had ever coached a game,” Pope says. “That really stuck with me and was probably some of the most valuable advice I got.”

Pope resolved that he was going to look at junior college players, transfers who had to sit out a year before they could play one more season and both DI and DII transfers for guys that would go through his program faster. Pope did this for a couple reasons. The transfers are older and more experienced, and because they have fewer years of eligibility, making UVU their last chance to prove themselves. He wanted players that had a chip on their shoulder.

Some coaches know who they are and who they’re going to coach when they take a new job, but for Pope, it’s a process.

“For me trying to discover who I am was really important,” Pope says. “I get a shot next year and the year after to redefine when I have a better understanding of what talent we need and all those things. It gives me a quicker turnover.”

What he didn’t realize his first day, was how much he liked having players that had the driving force of something to prove playing for his team.

 “As soon as I got [to coach transfer players], I loved it,” says Pope. “There’s something powerful about being in a locker room where you’re looking at a bunch of guys that all have been exposed. You don’t have to pretend anymore.”

Jordan Poydras, who was a redshirt for a year then played his senior season for UVU in 2016-17, says he realized quickly when he got to UVU how contentious practice was with a team of such diverse players.

 “It makes it interesting and I think Coach Pope likes that,” Poydras says. “We had some guys that were really competitive and we liked to go at it. … Every practice it was like everybody came in with something to prove.”

Those around UVU have taken notice that Pope has infused added enthusiasm to all aspects of his program.

When he arrived, there were no plans or funding for a basketball practice facility on campus. He needed just six months to line up the donors and ready the plans for the building.

UVU’s assistant coaches say that part of building the basketball program is infusing a culture of professionalism, whether that’s with new facilities or player conduct.

 “We let them know the plan,” Cody Fueger, an assistant coach says. “If you don’t want to be a pro — don’t come here. If you don’t go to class — don’t come here.”

 “Coach Pope gets you to buy in — being for winning,” says Young, the Houston native. “The guys he recruits are about winning and they know that winning is going to be the thing that puts them over the top.”

It makes sense, then, that a team run by Pope would also do well in the classroom. After all, he studied on bus rides and in hotel rooms during his NBA career, and attended medical school at Columbia immediately after retiring.

Veronica O’Brien, the team’s academic advisor, says she could see early on what a professional he was and how that attitude trickled down to academics. The Wolverines had a 3.38 GPA last year, which the team says is the highest in the nation. More impressive is they have graduated all but one player in their tenure, with three players leaving the program with an MBA.

Some players came to UVU with school work already a priority — Kenneth Ogbe completed a 27-credit summer semester in order to transfer to UVU as a graduate from Utah. Others, however, needed a spark of encouragement to take their education seriously.

Brandon Randolph, who played two years for UVU after leaving Xavier, didn’t always get along with O’Brien. In fact, they butted heads. She wanted him to attend his classes and do all of the assigned work. She wasn’t going to let him skate by.

Randolph had more than one expletive-laced tirade in Pope’s office concerning O’Brien. But Randolph kept at it. O’Brien says she just needed to show him he was capable of being more than simply a basketball player. Over time Randolph saw himself earning better grades and wanting to be a role model for other younger players.

Randolph was the first person in his family to graduate from college. When senior night came, he asked O’Brien to join him on the court for the pregame ceremony.

Brandon Randolph (3) drives to the basket against Kentucky in Rupp Arena on November 10, 2017 as part of the ‘Toughest 24.’ UVU lost the game 73-63. Photo by Jay Drowns

 “It was a no brainer to have her walk with me,” Randolph says. “She has always been there for me. …I felt she actually cared about me.”

Manyang was also the first person in his family to graduate from college.

At least part of the reason players take their classes seriously is because one of the four team rules is Make Veronica Happy. Running them if they miss class can’t hurt either.

But perhaps more inspiring is how the coaching staff is upfront regarding players’ potential on the court. Other coaches tend to lead even bench players to believe they have a future in professional basketball to keep them happy.

Jim McCulloch, play-by-play announcer for UVU, says a lot of coaching staffs do their players a disservice by letting them believe they will play professionally when it is not in the cards. These players find themselves without many options once they are done playing basketball. McCulloch says he has never heard UVU’s coaches express to a player that they are good enough to be a pro if it wasn’t true. In fact, they tell their players they need something to fall back on.

 “Our guys don’t BS their players,” McCulloch says.

On the court, they are inching themselves toward an eventual appearance in the NCAA Tournament. With the talent Pope has been able to put on the floor, a Cinderella story is the right mixture of talent and momentum away from becoming a reality.

The Wolverines shocked BYU on the road in 2016 with a 114-101 beat down and then nearly pulled off another upset over Utah in Salt Lake City a couple weeks later. That team finished the season in the semifinal of the CBI Tournament.

After UVU beat Rice to head to the semifinal game, a video of former NBA coach and TV broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy riding in a car, chatting with the passengers, hit Twitter. Van Gundy, who lives in Houston and is a huge name in the basketball world, was at the game and took notice of the Wolverines and their “big-time coach.”

In 2017, UVU opened the season by playing No. 5-ranked Kentucky and No. 1 Duke on the road over a two-day period the team marketed as “The Toughest 24” in college basketball history. They hung with Kentucky for most of the game, even taking a lead into halftime.

Pope’s teams play fast and are always capable of pulling off a shocker, especially when the shots are falling for a team that likes to shoot the deep ball. Average attendance is up nearly 165 percent of what it was before the coach took over the program. Last season’s game against BYU was the first sellout in UVU basketball history.

Brandon Randolph (23) and Jordan Poydras (10) shush the crowd after hitting a 3-pointer to end the first half against BYU. The Wolverines won the game 114-101. Photo by Jay Drowns

The team’s RPI has skyrocketed from the 300s when Pope arrived to No. 84 in the country at the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Currently, six former players are signed professionally around the world, four of whom have been players Pope brought to UVU.

UVU has had the exact same coaching staff for four straight years, an anomaly in college basketball, but especially the Western Athletic Conference. The result of that consistency has been a big reason the Wolverines have seen success every year under Pope. It aids recruiting and that the players and coaches are able to develop relationships — swapping coaches changes that dynamic.

 “They can laugh, they can joke, they know when each other is kidding,” McCulloch says. “It’s not just camaraderie, they know when a coach is yelling at them it’s not personal, it’s basketball.”

After taking a medical leave of absence from BYU during his sophomore season, Toolson transferred to UVU. He felt like Pope and assistant coach Fueger were there for him as a person first, without selling UVU to him. Both coaches were BYU assistants during his freshman season.

 “That relationship I realized was something that was special and something I wanted to be a part of,” Toolson says. “That’s what makes this place special. The relationship, the commitment to us. … that’s not something that’s just common.”

Young says “It wasn’t a two-year [commitment] for me. It’s a lifelong thing. Those are guys I can call up and talk to if I have an issue, basketball or not, and they’ll answer.”

Randolph, who grew up in Inglewood, California, felt like a fish out of water in Orem. As a point guard directing the team on the court, there were moments during his junior season where communication issues were apparent. At times Randolph could be seen agitated with teammates late in tight games. By his senior season, he had grown as a leader on the court.

 “I think our coaching staff has done a better job with guys like [Brandon] than any coaching staff I’ve been involved with in my career,” McCulloch says. “Taking players who are ugly ducklings somewhere else — you know, square peg round hole type guys — and getting them here and doing what it takes to make them a team player and sending them off to bigger and better things in life.”

From the time Manyang arrived in Orem, seemingly everyone around him, seeing his future in professional ball, wanted to be his friend. As a 7-foot black man, he was hard to miss walking around a campus that is 80 percent white.

 “That’s hard on somebody that doesn’t have a solid background of support to suddenly be the focus of everybody’s adulation,” McCulloch says.

Looking for a familiar face once he left Oklahoma, Manyang found the perfect place to develop both on the court and off with the UVU staff.

Burgess, the 6’11” assistant coach who Manyang knew from his community college days, played for big-time college programs in Duke and Utah. He also played 11 years professionally, and matched with 6’10” Pope, Manyang had two experienced mentors.

Of all the players on the team, Manyang and Rich Harward developed an improbable chemistry.

Harward, a freshman last season, had just returned from an LDS mission when he joined the basketball team. Harward grew up in Orem and by Pope’s valuation was a quiet, straight arrow, maybe-in-way-over-his-head freshman who probably heard some conversations in the locker room about things he had never heard before.

 “These guys had this magical interaction on the court that was really special,” Pope says. “For some reason AK, in his own unique way, was really drawn to Rich. And for some reason, Rich was completely unfazed and intimidated by AK.”

Harward says that one day in the middle of practice, he told Manyang to quit complaining, in so many words. After briefly butting heads, the incident culminated in a friendship between two players that did not have a whole lot in common outside of basketball.

 “As a coach,” Pope says, “you shake your head and say I don’t know why this is working — I can’t understand it — but it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

In the next few days, Pope will have to decide where he would rather coach, BYU—with its bigger and better facilities, fan involvement and pedigree—or remain at UVU where he has a chance to take the Wolverines places they have never gone before and do so by recruiting his newfound favorite “crooked path” guys.

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