Since Washington athletic director Jen Cohen concluded a job search that was shorter than most Pink Floyd songs, her identification of Mike Hopkins as the Huskies next head basketball coach has drawn rave reviews.
Count me among those impressed with the hire, although — full disclosure — I knew nothing about Hopkins when the bombshell story broke Sunday morning. By Sunday afternoon, I got the sense the 47-year old Syracuse assistant is an ideal choice to reawaken a doddering program.
My only worry is that the formal introduction of Hopkins on Wednesday will turn out to be as clumsy as Ron Zook’s opening remarks upon his introduction as Illinois’ head football coach in 2005. Zook offered the standard piffle about how excited he was to be part of a school with such a proud athletic tradition, except he pronounced Illinois “Ill-en-noise.”
Illini fans heard that and wondered: If the guy doesn’t even know how to pronounce the name of the state school, why is he excited to be part of it? Zook ended up lasting six seasons, but his reputation was sealed in the microsecond it takes for a dunderhead to belch at the dining table of his future in-laws.
I doubt Hopkins will make the mistake of calling Washington “Wershington,” or refer to the “Purple and Gold” to “Gold and Purple.” Those familiar with Hopkins talk of his passion for prep work, somebody determined to be the first person in the office and the last person to leave.
Then again, those familiar with Hopkins presumed he’d remain at Syracuse as the obvious successor to Jim Boeheim, supposedly facing retirement in 2018.
But Boeheim, rumor has it, decided to go Francisco Franco on everybody by extending his stay until, well, whenever. When you’re Jim Boeheim, you’ve got to think the floor is yours at Syracuse, but that poses a quandary for his top assistant: Wait another two, three, five years for Boeheim to step down? Or wait for Syracuse administrators to force his hand?
Hopkins couldn’t have been thrilled with either scenario.
The longer he waits, the more he looks like he’s lacking the ambition to be challenged. If he takes over after the reluctant-to-retire Boeheim is fired, he looks like an ingrate who betrayed his mentor.
The Washington job allows Hopkins a graceful exit from the only college program he’s ever known. It also puts him closer to his parents, who live in the Los Angeles area and are eager to see their grandchildren more frequently than they did when separated by 2,600 miles.
Hopkins’ background is where the dots really connect, helping explain an East Coast coach’s affinity for the West Coast. A former point guard at Mater Dei High in suburban Los Angeles, Hopkins regularly scoured Southern California for talent. That he was able to convince some of them to spend at least one frigid winter in central New York affirms his recruiting ability.
Which brings us to Jason Hart, an L.A. high school product Hopkins wooed to Syracuse. Hart enjoyed a stellar career as an Orange point guard, bounced around the NBA for a decade, then stayed in basketball as an assistant college coach whose emphasis is on recruiting.
Hopkins had a prominent role in acquiring the players who took USC to this season’s NCAA Tournament, and he’ll have a prominent role in acquiring the players who eventually will return the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament.
Hart and veteran coach Tim O’Toole, another Syracuse associate of Hopkins’ with West Coast ties — he was an assistant this season at Cal — should occupy seats on the UW bench alongside Will Conroy, the lone holdover of the Lorenzo Romar Era.
Hart and O’Toole are tuned into the region, while Conroy figures to focus on the consistently fertile crop of Seattle-area prospects. What’s not to like about a staff like this?
And then there’s Hopkins, the head coach who put a trio of assistants together before he even was introduced to the public. He impresses me as a man with a plan, a man on a mission.
The Huskies’ transformation from an indifferent team on defense, and a clueless team on offense, won’t occur overnight. It’s possible it won’t occur next season. That’s why Cohen gave Hopkins a six-year contract, with the long-term in mind.
I’m applauding Cohen’s bold decision to look at the entirety of the basketball map for a new coach, yet keeping my fingers crossed.
If Mike Hopkins begins his Wednesday press conference by saying how eager he is uphold the proud Gold and Purple tradition at the University of Wershington, all bets are off.