Mike Hopkins’ energy and passion were plainly visible Wednesday. But he had to escape the shadow of his former boss, Jim Boeheim, rather than attempt the futile task of succeeding him.
For those puzzling over why Mike Hopkins would leave a primo gig as the coach-designate at the college basketball mecca of Syracuse University to come to the arid plainness of University of Washington hoops, the answer is simple:
If he stayed, he’d have to succeed Jim Boeheim. It’s a dead man’s job. Who wants a dead man’s job?
As popular, effective and rooted as was Hopkins as a player for four years and and an assistant coach for 22 years, at the Orange’s first three-game losing streak under Hopkins, the one-horse-town crazies would be after his head.
He can’t handle the top job, they would say. Should have done a national search, they would say. Boeheim’s ways don’t translate to anyone else, they would say.
It’s a trope as old as James Naismith’s peach baskets.
Ask the six coaches who followed John Wooden at UCLA before Jim Harrick and his assistant, Lorenzo Romar, won a national championship (at the Kingdome) in 1995, the first for the Bruins in 20 years after winning 10 of 11. And Harrick was fired after the next season over a petty scandal involving a dinner tab he lied about.
Not saying Boeheim is Wooden, but he and Hopkins did win a title in 2003, and Boeheim is as much a part of the central New York state landscape as winter slush. Coaching men’s college basketball is a ruthless, cruel industry, and it isn’t made easier by following a legend.
At Washington, the tolerance is much greater. Hopkins will never admit it, but he had to be impressed with a major-conference school that would indulge a six-year absence from the NCAA tournament before the coach was fired. That’s some serious runway.
During his opening presser Wednesday at Hec Ed, in which he delivered on his forecasted virtues of energy and passion, Hopkins suggested that being his own guy in a place that would appreciate it was a big deal for him.
“One of the most important things for me was, I wanted to go some place where I felt like I could be forever, and I could build something that everybody had a lot — a lot — of pride for,” he said. “That’s why I came here.”
That, and a $1.8 million salary, the first year of a $12.3 million, six-year contract. Pretty good, since Romar earned $1.7 million this season to go 9-22, and Hopkins, 47, has never been a head coach in his career.
Yet the compensation is far less than if Washington tried to crowbar a sitting head coach from a high-profile job. Plus, that guy might have not as much to prove.
“He’s hungry,” said athletics director Jen Cohen. “I like that.”
She also used terms such as “scrappy,” “getting dirty” and “working class” to describe Hopkins. For a Tacoma gal, those are comfortable words, although as Seattle gets more gentrified by the minute, one wonders whether millennials are impressed by such things.
But Hopkins invoked his mossy bona fides for a small gathering of Huskies staff and fans seated in the bleachers by saying that not only were his parents born and raised in Seattle, he spent time in Seattle in the mid-1990s working with a mentor, Tim Grgurich, the maniacal assistant to coach George Karl during the Sonics’ heyday of the middle 1990s.
If Hopkins picked up Grgurich’s style, which you may have seen watching Warner Brothers cartoons featuring the Tasmanian devil “Taz,” Huskies fans should be prepared to have their umbrellas turned inside out by the whirlwind.
But his role model is clearly Boeheim, 72, the thought of whom caused him to pause for several dramatic moments to gather his emotions.
“He was proud, and disappointed,” Hopkins said of his Saturday meeting with the boss who coached him, hired him, then had to hear the news about Washington. “When I talked to him about my vision, he did what I do with my son. I say, ‘I’ll let you make the decision, but tell me why.’ So when I spoke (to Boeheim) about the opportunity and the program, he went, ‘Wow.’”
Then, to much chuckling, Hopkins did his Boeheim impression, shrugging, palms up, in the familiar Boeheim accent, “Wow. Wow.’”
The admiration continued, but the emulation ended there.
“I’m can’t be Jim Boeheim, I’m not gonna be (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, under whom he worked at USA Basketball),” he said. “I’m gonna be Mike Hop.”
Both were longtime assistants under Krzyzewski and were candidates to inherit the Duke program. But Collins left to be head coach at Northwestern in 2013 and Wojciechowski left for Marquette in 2014. They too, flinched at the prospect of expectations succeeding a legend, and have taken lesser programs to the tourney.
“I haven’t shared this with anybody,” he said. “To see my buddy Chris take a school that’s never been to the NCAA tournament in its history — people said, ‘No way.’ Not only did they go this year, they won a game, changed the culture, and put Northwestern back on the map.
“To be honest with you, when I was watching him, I was a little bit envious. It was his own — the team he brought, the team he coached.”
That’s why Hopkins wanted the Washington job — to make his mark. It’s a Pac-12 school in a big market that produces a handful of Division I prospects annually, and has the profile and reach to draw some national recruits, as Romar proved.
Whether Hopkins is capable remains to be seen, particularly in view of the potential defections of Romar’s prized recruiting class, which will be released from their letters of intent if they so request.
Already one committed player, Blake Harris, has re-opened his recruiting:
— Blake Harris (@blizzyblake55_) March 21, 2017
The star of the class, national player of the year Michael Porter Jr., said he will ask out of his letter.
“Washington is definitely still on the list, I would just like to weigh all my options and make a decision from there,” Porter said on a conference call Wednesday, when he was presented with the Gatorade National Player of the Year award. “I just thought I want to be able to start over and look at all these schools and look at the pros and cons of each one.”
Hopkins, who had yet to talk to Porter, said that was going to change Wednesday.
“It’s been like a lightning flash, it’s been coming so fast, getting our family out here and going to try a place to live for those three little children over there,” Hopkins said. “But we reached out to a lot of people. It’s hard because each phone call is about 45-50 minutes from parents.
“We’re definitely going to be sitting down and meeting with the Porter family very soon, maybe even today.”
The Huskies program is in better shape than Northwestern’s when Collins took over. But unlike Duke and Syracuse, the shadow of the entrenched coach shrunk each of the past six years, allowing light for his successor.
Who knew it was possible to come to Seattle for the sunshine?