Pope: "It Was The Worst Locker Room I've Ever Been In"

BYU coach Mark Pope will never forget telling his players that the NCAA Tournament had been canceled

Zach Gelb
March 16, 2020 - 12:00 pm
BYU Mark Pope

USA Today Images


Mark Pope will never forget the 2019-20 college basketball season – not just because it was his first season at BYU, but because of the way it ended: with a global pandemic.

He also won’t forget how he found out how the season ended – or how his players responded.

“We were in the film room,” Pope recalled on The Zach Gelb Show. “We were taped and ready to go to practice and I was presenting some information to the team. My assistant kind of leaned over and stuck his phone in front of my face with the announcement.”

It was official: The NCAA Tournament had been canceled.

“Clearly the tone of the meeting changed drastically,” Pope said. “It was the worst locker room I’ve ever been in.”

No. 14 BYU went 24-8 this season. Its top three scorers – Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson and TJ Haws – were seniors. The Cougars beat No. 2 Gonzaga (31-2), 91-78, on Feb. 22.

“It might be hard to understand just the scope of emotion that these young men had,” Pope said. “We have a pretty senior-heavy team at a program with unbelievably rich tradition who had worked really hard over the last three and four years trying to make it back to the NCAA Tournament and fallen short every single year. With the coaching change last year, we had a bunch of guys that were considering leaving, going pro, even transferring – and they all decided to come back and take one more huge swing at this to see if they could finally in their last chance . . . make it to this dream scenario. And they did it. They actually did it. The only thing that was left was Selection Sunday, and it just went away.”

BYU would have reached the tournament for the first time since 2015.

“You could imagine the tears,” Pope said. “The overwhelming thing to me was just the silence of the locker room for longer than you could anticipate. It was just a deadly silence. It was brutal. It’s only brutal in our little microcosm of basketball, which is everything to us. Clearly, when you think about it on a more holistic feel, it makes sense. You understand it has to happen. But that still doesn’t diminish the devastation my guys felt about putting their whole heart and soul and lives into this for year after year after year and finally getting there and then it being taken away. It was really tough. It was so dark in that locker room.”

Pope didn’t bother with a cliche speech or words of encouragement. He allowed his players to process the news on their terms and experience whatever emotions they felt.

“It wasn't really a time for some speech about how hard things happen or life isn’t fair,” he said. “We didn’t go anywhere near that. We just talked about what they had accomplished. Our season was pretty special because it was just moment after extraordinary moment of guys raising up and doing special tings. The only message was how much we loved them and personally how grateful I was that I got to be a part of this and watch them sacrifice for each other and fight for each other and how much I love these young men. That was really the only message probably that had any staying power or any meaning whatsoever.”