One of the pillars of BYU basketball coach Mark Pope’s program has been establishing the “Best Locker Room in America.”
But that’s a difficult task in an era that’s featured major changes in NCAA transfer rules.
Pope discussed this topic, and others, on a recent podcast, “Extraordinary Us,” hosted by Jeff Burningham.
Having the “Best Locker Room” means players put aside their personal agendas and take roles that help the team win games. That approach has worked well for Pope in his first two seasons as the Cougars have amassed a 44-15 record.
Still, it’s easier said than done when there is so much turnover on the roster from year to year.
After last season, which included an NCAA Tournament berth, players like Kolby Lee and Connor Harding decided to transfer. Meanwhile, BYU added new players, like Wisconsin-Milwaukee transfer Te’Jon Lucas.
It’s super complicated. This idea of chasing the ‘Best Locker Room in America’ is something super important to us,” Pope said on the podcast. “Like anything worthwhile in life, that is an every-day struggle. It is something that you talk about and reevaluate and fall short of every single day. It is complicated, heart-rending, every day trying to convince yourself to sacrifice your own agenda for the team. You have to renew that commitment every day.
Pope said one of the keys to team unity is not allowing those close to the players to distract them by emphasizing individual statistics over team goals.
“Parents and families and friends, more often than not, destroy the player they’re cheering for,” Pope said. “Because this game is not about who scores the most points, it’s who’s the best players in helping their team win. Those are the guys that move on … Right now, for good or for bad, with the first-time transfer waiver, it’s changed the game forever … We’re figuring it out in real time. What we’re looking for right now with our guys is a 100% commitment toward the ‘Best Locker Room in America,’ sacrificing everything you can for your team, toward making winning the No. 1 focus for a year. Then we’ll reevaluate.”
Pope acknowledged that players have the right to reevaluate their situation, too.
I had a couple of guys on my team that are the biggest, most self-sacrificing guys on this team, that were 100% focused on winning. The greatest young men you could meet. They did it at an epic level,” Pope said. “Then when they had a chance to reevaluate, they were like, ‘I love it but actually I want something different right now.’ And that’s a good thing. It’s not only a good thing for individuals to have an opportunity to change what’s most important to them as they go through their lives, it’s also healthy for our locker room.”
As a player, Pope himself transferred, to Kentucky, after spending two seasons at Washington.
Pope said he felt he had failed at Washington and it was a miserable experience for him. But that led him to winning a national championship at Kentucky.
“I spent so much of my life terrified of failing,” he said. “We hate failing, no doubt. But we also understand that failing is part of the process. The most successful people I know, the biggest winners, the failure is inherently required in the story.”
Pope talks often about “earning your tears,” and he brought up the example of guard Brandon Averette, who cried after BYU fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to UCLA last March.
He had a historic season for us last year on a great team. After we lost to UCLA, he was broken, devastated, sobbing. It was awful. And there was no way to console him,” Pope said. “In the moment, it was the worst thing ever. But in his lifetime, those tears are a beautiful thing. His whole heart and soul and all the fight he could muster had been laid on the floor for years. He’s going to be so incredibly proud of what he accomplished.”
Pope also shared insights about the state of the Utah Jazz, now owned by BYU grad Ryan Smith.
“What the Millers did with the Jazz is really incredible. You can’t overstate what they accomplished with the Jazz. Add to that list turning the team over to Ryan. Everything he touches turns to gold. He’s got a real vision for what he would like the Jazz to be as an organization. He cares so much about this state, the state of Utah. He cares deeply about this state. He wants everything here to grow.
“Talk about the coup of all coups. You bring in Dwyane Wade, who is probably, with everything happening in the world over the last year or two, is probably the No. 1 spokesman, veteran NBA guy. You couldn’t have gotten a better representative. For D-Wade to jump in here and partner with Ryan, it’s not just the Jazz, it’s the state of Utah and what the Jazz represents to the state of Utah. The direction is so inspiring and I feel like we’re in good hands.