When I headed off to my long weekend in Reno, the talk of the local sports world was on Lorenzo Romar’s firing. When I woke up on Sunday, preparing to hop on a plane back to Seattle, his replacement had been hired and here we go.
Mike Hopkins has been an assistant coach at Syracuse since 1996. He’s been the official “head coach in-waiting” under Jim Boeheim since 2015. I know so little about Syracuse basketball, I was actually surprised to learn Boeheim was still there. For some reason, I thought he retired a year or two ago. Other than that, I know Syracuse has been a premiere college basketball program for some time. I know they play some sort of zone defense exclusively. And, I know they make the NCAA Tournament almost every year.
What I’ve learned about Mike Hopkins is that he was supposed to take over as head coach for Syracuse at the conclusion of the 2017/2018 season. I’ve learned that a number of schools have tried to hire him away, including USC and Oregon State, but for various reasons it fell through. I’ve learned that Hopkins has been the primary recruiter for some time with the Orangemen (with Boeheim being the “closer” for some of the top recruits), and that he’s very actively involved in the team’s gameplans and scouting. So, you know, we’re talking about a situation with Boeheim that you see a lot when a head coach has been in the same spot for upwards of 41 years: you see an old man delegating the shit out of his responsibilities. And so, in essence, we’re hiring away the “real” head coach of Syracuse, in all but name only.
My initial thought when I heard about the signing was: why would he come to Washington NOW? If he’s really a year away from taking over at Syracuse – which is the only school he’s ever worked for, as well as the school he played for from 1989-1993 – then why does he jump ship now? It has since come out that Syracuse is going to extend Jim Boeheim beyond 2018, which they are spinning as a move done in response to Washington’s hire, but I’m not so sure. It would stand to reason that Boeheim – being effectively forced out by the school when they announced Hopkins would be the head coach in-waiting – resented not being able to go out on his own terms, and has fought behind the scenes to stick around. I’d be willing to put money down that Boeheim had an extension either in place or in the process of being in place, and once Hopkins heard about it, he opened himself up to moving onto another program.
I’m sure there are other reasons that will be discussed this week when he comes over for his initial press conference. I can’t imagine it would be fun to be the guy who follows in Boeheim’s footsteps once he retires; that’s a huge burden to bear. In Washington, he’s got a chance to build something great. If he’s as good a coach and recruiter as I’m hearing, he could be for Washington what Boeheim is to Syracuse. And, then there’s the fact that he has family on the west coast and whatnot. It’s never any one thing that brings a guy to make a decision like this, so I’m sure we’ll get fed multiple lines of reasoning.
As far as how I think he’ll do, I’m going to go with Cautiously Optimistic. He’s never been the head guy before. Outside of recruiting circles, he’s a virtual unknown. While he’s FROM the West Coast, he has no real basketball ties to this side of the country, so whoever he ends up hiring as his assistants will factor HUGELY. And, even though we’re not going to be able to hold onto Romar’s final recruiting class, I think he’ll be a nice breath of fresh air for the players who stick around. Hopefully, he’ll be able to light a fire under them, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
I have a general feeling about new college head coaching hires, and it’s this: I’m never going to trust them completely, until they give me reason to. The college game, whether it’s football or basketball, is all about jumping from school to school. And I can’t help but see Washington as a stepping stone to other places. Just as soon as they have some success here, they’re gone. It didn’t take much for Coach Sark to fly the coup back to USC. I’m sure Chris Petersen gets calls daily about going to some bigger program. Rick Neuheisel was seemingly taking weekly interviews with other schools and NFL teams, for crying out loud! Washington isn’t a destination; it’s a slingshot to bigger and better things.
While Boeheim isn’t going anywhere for the time being, he’s still over 70 years old. Who’s to say he won’t retire in the next 3-5 years? And, when that time comes, what’s going to stop Mike Hopkins from returning to his Dream Job, particularly if he turns the Husky program around and gets us back into the Tourney in that time?
Or, shit, what if UCLA’s job opens up in that time? His west coast family is in the southern California area, so that has to be of interest. And, if he does REALLY well at Washington, what’s stopping him from going to any number of bigger basketball schools?
Obviously, money talks, and if you’re a good-enough coach, you can establish a top line basketball program literally anywhere. If Gonzaga can be as well regarded as it is, there’s no reason why Washington couldn’t. It then becomes a point of whether or not Washington wants to invest in the basketball program as much as it does the football program. So, you know, at this point we’re talking about not trusting the university enough, but let’s not go down that road until we have to.
We’ll see, I guess, is the bottom line. First thing’s first: how will Mike Hopkins salvage next season’s recruiting class? It won’t define his tenure by any means, but it’s the first big test on his desk.