Years from now, when Brigham Young University men’s basketball coach Mark Pope considers 2020, he will likely conjure up a still-growing list of highlights.
He will remember leading the 2019-2020 Cougars to a 24-win season, the most victories for a first-year coach in program history.
He won’t forget that Saturday evening in late February in the Marriott Center when his squad defeated Gonzaga, the No. 2-ranked team in the nation.
And since this is 2020, after all — a few memories will be bittersweet.
Pope will long feel the sting of the Cougars’ top-20 season being cut short when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. He and the rest of Cougar Nation were left to wonder and debate how deep their team might have competed into the “Big Dance.”
But on a personal level, the husband and father of four girls will also remember 2020 as the year he became a “missionary dad.”
Like legions of other Latter-day Saint parents, Pope and his wife, Lee Anne, are experiencing the joys and worries and wonders and disruptions of a missionary child serving during the ongoing pandemic.
Their daughter, Ella, a basketball player at Ohio University, was assigned early in the year to labor in Ecuador. “It’s been a miracle to watch [Ella] weave her way through the challenges she has faced,” her father told the Church News.
Sister Pope’s experience of opening her mission call in front of Ohio teammates was referenced in Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon’s April 2020 general conference talk.
The youth leader shared a quote from the young missionary: “Basketball is one of the most important things in my life. I moved across the country and left my family to play for this coach and with this team. The only two things that are more important to me than basketball are my faith and my family.”
Three days after arriving in Ecuador, Sister Pope and her fellow missionaries in that South American nation were quarantined. Weeks later, she was directed to return to the United States. Like many missionaries, she struggled to know how to continue. But after much prayer and discussion with her family, she resumed her missionary duties in Jacksonville, Florida.
“It’s like the heavens have opened,” said Pope. “The work that she has been able to do and the people she has been able to serve have all been daily miracles. … It’s hard not to have her here with us, but it’s been a blessing to be able to watch her missionary experiences.”
Have ball/coach’s clipboard: will travel
The 48-year-old lifelong Latter-day Saint calls himself a blessed man.
Basketball — and a 6-foot-10-inch frame — helped set the table for a rich, well-traveled career expected to continue Wednesday when BYU begins its 2020-2021 campaign versus Westminster College.
After graduating from Newport High School in Bellevue, Washington, Pope enrolled at the University of Washington. He earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors there before playing his final two years at Kentucky, where he was a key player on the Wildcats’ 1996 national championship team.
Then it was on to the professional ranks for an eight-year career that included seasons with the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets. He later transitioned to coaching college basketball, including a multi-year stint (2011-2015) as an assistant at BYU before becoming Utah Valley University’s head coach in 2015.
Before settling in Provo, Pope was typically the only Latter-day Saint on his team.
“I’m so grateful for the gospel and its guiding principles,” he said, viewing his playing days. “Without the gospel, I would have been a disaster.”
He’s quick to note that his personal journey of faith has been a process that continues to this day. “I have had to earn and grow a testimony.”
Plying his trade at BYU, he added, now allows him to combine his shared passions: the gospel and basketball.
“I love coaching basketball here so much and I feel incredibly blessed to have this opportunity,” he said. “So for this period of my life, where I’m allowed to coach this program — whether it lasts for one more day or 10 more years — I just feel incredibly grateful to be here.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 24, BYU announced that the school had extended Pope’s contract through the 2026-27 season.
Lessons learned from setbacks
Pope’s professional gratitude, he said, begins and ends “with the extraordinary young men” filling his roster. Many of the players are Latter-day Saints. A few are not. Over the past year, the coach has demonstrated a knack for recruiting athletes that might not have once considered playing at the Church-owned school.
“BYU is increasingly becoming a powerful draw for, in my case, young men that believe in the concept of a standard,” Pope said. “They understand the idea of sacrificing for something bigger than themselves.”
Given Pope’s personal investment in his team, it’s easy to understand the hurt he felt for his players when the Cougars’ historic run was abruptly upended last season. He is quick to acknowledge that the pain being exacted by the pandemic, worldwide, is far greater than canceling a few basketball games.
Still, he knows the sacrifice and fight his guys put into realizing their potential on the court. The BYU program has learned essential lessons over the past year.
Missing out on the NCAAs, he said, “was tough on our guys — but athletics can be a great teacher. … You don’t know how many days you get. So the idea of being 100% present in the moment, and never taking an opportunity for granted, are lessons we have taken from this.”
The 2019-2020 season didn’t end as Pope hoped, but he’s thankful for all it offered.
“The guys trusted each other, bonded together, sacrificed for each other and shared some epic moments that they could share with Cougar Nation,” he said.
While Pope and his coaching counterpart on the BYU football team, Kalani Sitake, make their living in different sports, the two can still talk “bishopric shop” when they get a moment together.
Like Sitake, Pope serves in a bishopric — as second counselor in the Canyon View 9th Ward, Orem Utah Canyon View Stake.
The call to the bishopric was more than surprising. “It was actually super terrifying because we felt we were stretched about as far as we could go.”
But Pope said he can trace the Lord’s hand — allowing him to magnify his time and capacity to meet his family, coaching and ecclesiastical duties.
“I love this gospel with all of my heart, and I’m so grateful. I am very blessed.”