“Coach Hop is a lot like me,” returning assistant coach Will Conroy says. “He’s a fighter. He’s a grinder. He’s tough. And we need to get back to that.”
As introductory news conferences go, Mike Hopkins knocked it out of the park.
That was the opinion of Washington athletic director Jen Cohen, who introduced the Huskies’ newest men’s basketball coach and sat next to him on a podium for more than 30 minutes while he shared stories from his past and laid out his vision for Husky hoops.
“You got to see the guy that I’ve gotten to know,” she said. “He’s genuine. He connects. At times, he got a little emotional and for a second there. I didn’t know if he was going to keep it together.”
Hopkins choked up momentarily when he ran down his coaching influences that began with Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) High’s Gary McKnight, longtime NBA assistant Tim Grgurich, who coached the Seattle Sonics, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and his former boss, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
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While describing Boeheim, who he called “my mentor, friend and father-figure,” Hopkins paused for long seconds and his voice cracked.
“He was a guy who gave a guy a shot,” the UW coach said. “He was a guy who gave a guy an opportunity when a lot of people didn’t, and I did everything in my power to make that opportunity a dream and a reality, and I want to thank him for that opportunity.”
Wednesday’s news conference at Alaska Airlines Arena ceremoniously began a new basketball chapter for a UW team that fell to historic lows this season. The Huskies finished with a school-record 13 straight defeats while bottoming out at 9-22. They were 11th in the Pac-12 at 2-16.
With blaring tunes from the UW marching band, Hopkins, 47, walked on the court holding hands with wife Tricia, followed by their children Michael (16), Grant (13) and Ella (9).
“Today is our opportunity to commit ourselves and re-energize ourselves around a new era of Husky basketball led by Coach Hopkins,” Cohen said.
After firing Lorenzo Romar last Wednesday, it took Cohen two days to pluck Hopkins away from Syracuse, where he spent the previous 22 years as an assistant.
She flew to New York to meet him last week and the two agreed upon a six-year, $12.3 million deal with the Huskies on Friday. He’ll make $1.8 million next season with a yearly $100,000 raise.
“When we made the decision to let Coach Romar go, we hit the ground running,” Cohen said. “And these searches, you have to have that diligence. You have to have that vetting. You have to be prepared.
“But you have to be able to be swift, especially in men’s basketball searches. So we were ready to go and went quickly.”
Cohen declined to say if she interviewed any other candidates. She added: “There was a lot of interest in the job, there was a strong candidate list and we got the guy we wanted.”
Hopkins said his first phone call was to Will Conroy, the former UW standout who spent the past two years on Romar’s staff, and convinced him to remain at UW.
“I took a day or two to think about it,” Conroy said. “I did. I talked it over with Coach (Romar) and he said go for it. … I didn’t necessarily need to hear that, but I’m glad he said that.
“Coach Hop is a lot like me. He’s a fighter. He’s a grinder. He’s tough. And we need to get back to that.”
Sources told The Seattle Times that UW will hire USC assistant Jason Hart and California assistant Tim O’Toole — both have ties to Hopkins at Syracuse. However, Hopkins said he hasn’t made any other decisions on the coaching staff.
UW assistant Michael Porter Sr., who has a job offer from Missouri, still has a year remaining on his contract while associate head coach Raphael Chillious isn’t expected to return.
Hopkins didn’t make any promises about snapping Washington’s six-year NCAA tournament drought, but the self-described underdog who “always had to fight for everything” promised to instill a blue-collar work ethic into the Huskies.
Hopkins talked about his Northwest ties. His parents were born in Seattle and his dad grew up in the Laurelhurst neighborhood. The family would vacation at Lake Chelan when he was a boy.
He opened up about a rivalry with Team USA basketball assistants Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski that influenced his decision to leave Syracuse, where he was slated to take over in 2018 when Boeheim was supposed to retire.
This year, Collins led Northwestern to the school’s first NCAA tournament and Wojciechowski guided Marquette to the Big Dance.
“To be honest with you, when I was watching (Northwestern), I was a little envious because it was his,” Hopkins said referring to Collins. “It was his own. The team that he brought in, the team that he coached.
“We’re going to work tooth and nail and do everything we can to make this a championship-level program.”
With amusing anecdotes and heartwarming tales, Hopkins seemingly won over Wednesday’s audience that included UW football coach Chris Petersen and men’s basketball players Markelle Fultz, David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle and Dominic Green.
But not everyone is enthralled with the coaching change.
While Hopkins was on stage, Michael Porter Jr., the biggest prize in UW’s highly rated 2017 incoming class, announced he asked Washington to release him from his scholarship commitment.
The news broke while Porter, a 6-foot-9 forward who is the No. 1 2107 prospect and projected No. 1 2018 NBA draft pick, was awarded the Gatorade national boys basketball player of the year at Nathan Hale High.
The Huskies had known of Porter’s request, but the timing was awkward.
“He already asked for his (national letter of intent),” Cohen said. “He’s already in the system. All that we’ve ever asked our student-athletes was to have a conversation with coach.
“It was my understanding that our coach and coach Porter have had conversations about getting together today or tomorrow, so that information surprised us.”
On Tuesday, the Huskies lost 2017 signee Blake Harris, a three-star point guard prospect from North Carolina, who was granted his release.
Sources with knowledge of the situation said Hopkins and Conroy were scheduled to meet Wednesday night with Garfield High standouts Daejon Davis and Jaylen Nowell — a pair of 2017 four-star recruits who signed with the Huskies.
A week ago, three UW players said they were considering transferring, but it remains to be seen who will stay or go after getting to know Hopkins. “We want people that have two feet in, in terms of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to build,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Hopkins, a San Mateo, Calif. native who played at Syracuse from 1989-93, said coaching at Washington is “a great fit for me and my family.”
“This felt right,” Hopkins said. “I can’t explain it.
“It’s very important for me that everyone here understand: One of the most important things for me was I wanted to go some place where I felt like I could be forever and I could build something that everybody had a lot, a lot of pride for. That’s why I came here.”