For a long time – longer than he even cares to remember – Mike Hopkins was certain about his coaching future. He would someday succeed his boss and mentor, Jim Boeheim, as the men’s basketball coach at Syracuse. He was comfortable with that notion, if only because Syracuse was all he knew.
He had played there, gone overseas to play for three years after graduation and then returned as an assistant for 22 years beginning in 1995.
“I had become the joke,” he said earlier this week. “People would say, how long have you been associate coach in waiting? Fifteen years? More? It was as if they were counting in dog years.”
The counting ended last March when Hopkins took the job as the head coach at Washington, 2,740 miles and a lifetime away from Syracuse. So far, the trip west has worked out just fine. After beating Arizona State on Feb. 1, the Huskies stunned then-No. 9 Arizona two days later. Suddenly, long-dormant Washington – 17-7 overall, including a win at Kansas, and 7-4 in the Pacific-12 Conference – is on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Hopkins’ decision to finally leave Central New York came after he had an epiphany about his coaching future that was inspired by watching his peers succeed.
“Working with the national team the last 10 or 12 years I got to be good friends with Chris Collins and Wojo (Steve Wojciechowski) 8 and I watched them take over their own programs and have success. I think last winter, when Chris was taking Northwestern to the NCAAs for the first time ever, really inspired me. It looked like he was having so much fun.”
Like Hopkins, who just turned 47, Collins and Wojciechowski had been assistants under their college coach, Mike Krzyzewski. Like Hopkins, both stayed longer than expected. And, like Hopkins, both knew their boss wasn’t quitting anytime soon. Both had worked with Team USA, just as Hopkins had done because Boeheim was Krzyzewski’s top assistant.
“I saw Chris and Wojo building their own legacies, rather than taking over for a legend and trying to protect the legacy,” Hopkins said. “It’s a very different thing, a different challenge. I realized that was what I wanted to do.”
And so, when Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen asked him to come to Seattle to talk about the job, Hopkins was willing to listen. The school had fired longtime coach Lorenzo Romar after going 9-22 and failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season. Washington’s basketball history isn’t exactly littered with success. The school last made it past the Sweet 16 in 1953, which was its only appearance in the Final Four. Hopkins knew the chance to build something unique was there.
And he knew it was time to stop waiting for Boeheim. Chances were decent that Godot would show up before Boeheim, now 73 and in his 42nd season at the helm, retired.
Hopkins grew up in sunny Southern California but was dying to spend winters in snowy Syracuse by the time he was in high school.
“It was Big Monday,” he said. “The games started at 4 o’clock our time and I never missed one. The rivalries were so amazing. I mean, what was cooler than Georgetown-Syracuse in the Carrier Dome or St. John’s-Villanova? I loved watching (Patrick) Ewing and (Chris) Mullin, but Pearl (Washington) was my hero.”
Before Hopkins’ freshman season at Mater Dei High School his coach, Gary McKnight, took him to Syracuse’s basketball camp. He met Washington there, which was a thrill. He also got on Boeheim’s radar, though not necessarily as a priority recruit.
“We had never – I mean never – recruited a kid who didn’t start his senior year in high school,” Boeheim said. “He was on a very good team, but he wasn’t a starter. Still, when he was on the court he had so much energy and knew how to play. He was really skinny and still growing. We decided he was worth a shot.”
Hopkins barely played for two years but grew and learned, often by trying to guard all-American Stevie Thompson in practice. “He got destroyed,” Boeheim said. “Every single day. And the next day he came back ready for more.”
By his junior year, Hopkins was starting some of the time and as a senior he averaged just less than 10 points a game, scoring 20 in his farewell game at the Carrier Dome. He also made a number of winning shots that cemented him in the memory of Syracuse fans – and Boeheim. Which is why, when Hopkins stopped playing, the head coach hired him right away.
Twenty-two years later, after telling Cohen he would take the Washington job but didn’t want to tell anyone until Syracuse’s season was over, Hopkins had to give Boeheim the news that he was leaving.
“We lost (in the NIT) to Mississippi on a Saturday and flew home,” Hopkins said. “Sunday morning, I called and said I needed to come over for a few minutes. When I told him, I could see he was shocked. For a minute he didn’t say anything. Then he started telling me what he thought I should be doing to get started in the new job. Took him about five minutes to start coaching me up.”
Washington has no seniors who get substantial playing time. The Huskies’ best player is 6-foot-4 shooting guard Jaylen Nowell, a local kid from Seattle who decided to keep his commitment to the school even after Romar was fired. He’s averaging 16.2 points per game and should be back next year.
“I hope,” Hopkins said. “Right now, I’d say he’ll be back but these days you never say never.”
Fans stormed the court Feb. 3 after Dominic Green’s 3-pointer at the buzzer sealed the 78-75 win over Arizona. That was fun. Now comes the rest of the season, which continues Saturday at Oregon State.
“The key this week is bringing the temperature down around here,” Hopkins said, laughing. “Look, you can talk all you want about every game being the same, but the Arizona win was a big deal. The campus is buzzing. Today’s Tuesday. I think we’ve got the temperature down to about 88. We need it back to 72 by Thursday. I told the guys, ‘Now you’re a target. Nothing’s easy from here to March.’”
Regardless of the outcome the next few weeks, Hopkins is thrilled with where he is. What if Boeheim ever retires and Syracuse calls?
“I wanted to create something on my own,” he said. “I’ve got the chance to do that here.”
Boeheim is more blunt. “He’s not coming back,” he said. “He shouldn’t come back. He’s got a great job in a great league. He’s where he belongs.”