It is natural to wonder, considering that he spent the past 22 years of his life as an assistant at Syracuse, whether new Washington men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins will be able to properly assimilate into the culture of the Pacific Northwest.
But here is a start: Ask him to name his favorite band.
“I love Pearl Jam,” he replies instantly. “I’m a huge fan. Huge.”
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“I had the flannel shirts, seeing them in concert all over the East Coast. I actually saw them at their first time they ever played at The Forum,” the 47-year-old says excitedly, though he says most things excitedly. “I saw them at Madison Square Garden. They talked about the stage shaking like it never shook before. Thought it was going to collapse.”
Yet his admiration of Eddie Vedder is not the whole of his Seattle connection. Within the first few minutes of his introductory news conference on Wednesday, Hopkins, who grew up in Laguna Hills, California, revealed that both of his parents were born in the Seattle area; that his father grew up in the Laurelhurst neighborhood, immediately east of the UW campus; that he considers ex-Sonics assistant Tim Grgurich among his most influential mentors; and that he used to vacation in Lake Chelan as a kid.
In more relevant news, Hopkins confirmed that he will retain assistant coach Will Conroy, considered a key figure in maintaining the Huskies’ pipeline to the Seattle prep basketball community — and, perhaps, maintaining at least some of their touted 2017 recruiting class.
As Hopkins met with reporters, star UW signee Michael Porter Jr. — announced Wednesday as the Gatorade National Player of the Year — was telling other reporters that he plans to seek a release from his national letter of intent and explore his options at other schools.
Porter Jr., the top-ranked recruit in the 2017 class and the son of in-limbo UW assistant Michael Porter Sr., said he is still considering the Huskies, though he has yet to meet with Hopkins.
That meeting, Hopkins said, will happen “very soon, maybe even today.”
As for the rest of the class, Conroy said he is focusing particularly on Garfield High guards Daejon Davis and Jaylen Nowell, trying to sell the pair of Seattle-raised signees on the idea of staying home and helping revive the UW program.
“It’s about putting your hometown on your chest first, and then putting it on your back on the court,” Conroy said. “That’s life changing. When you are able to win here in Seattle and you’re from here, that’s life changing, in my opinion.”
Likewise, Hopkins summarized his recruiting strategy: “The model that I’d like to put out there and use is the same model we use at Syracuse — homeland security. I want as many Seattle players that can play here playing in our arena. I want that pride. There’s nothing like winning something significant in your own backyard, and that’s what we did at Syracuse when we won it.”
Hopkins and UW athletic director Jen Cohen spoke of their shared vision for excellence, raved about the way their priorities aligned, said all the things first-day coaches and proud athletic directors are supposed to say.
Hopkins signed a six-year deal worth a total of $12.3 million, according to a memorandum of understanding distributed by the school.
Hopkins seemed set on convincing anyone listening that UW is where he wants to be. He was the head coach in waiting behind Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, set to take over that program following the 2017-18 season. Why move west now?
Well, he saw Steve Wojciechowski leave his longtime role as an assistant at Duke for the head coaching job at Marquette. And lead Marquette to the NCAA Tournament. And he saw Chris Collins, another longtime Duke assistant, leave for the head coaching job at Northwestern. And lead Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“To be honest with you, when I was watching them, I was a little envious,” Hopkins said, “because it was his. It was his own. The team that he brought in, the team that he coached.”
The chance to make Washington his own is what ultimately led Hopkins to walk away from a sure thing at his alma mater, where he played from 1989-93, met his wife, raised his three children (ages 16, 13 and 9, and yes, the oldest has been to a Pearl Jam concert), and developed a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable, respected assistants in college basketball.
Now, he’s all-in on UW. And Seattle.
“This felt right. I can’t explain it. Are you married? Do you remember the time that you met your wife?” Hopkins asked a reporter. “It’s very important for me and for everybody here to understand that I wanted to go someplace I felt like I could be at forever, and I could build something that everybody had a lot, a lot of pride for. That’s why I came here.”