When you take a deep dive into Hopkins, who will be unveiled as the Huskies’ coach Wednesday at Alaska Airlines Arena, a few themes emerge repeatedly. Passion. Compassion. Hard work. Sincerity. He also had a long apprenticeship under Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
If you want a metaphor for Mike Hopkins’ basketball life, Allen Griffin has what he feels is a perfect one for the new Husky men’s coach.
Griffin became a standout four-year point guard for Syracuse from 1998-2001, but early in his career, he readily admits he was a bad shooter. Hopkins was the assistant coach who throughout his 22-year tenure with the Orange would work after practice with any player who was willing to put in the extra time. That’s how Hopkins, described affectionately by his high-school coach as a “skinny runt,’’ forged his own unlikely career at Syracuse, so he was more than willing to pay it forward.
Griffin took him up on the offer, and “he made me an average shooter” during those extra workouts, he recalled. But somewhere along the line, the two developed a competition to see who would get to the ball first when one of Griffin’s misses clanged off the rim.
“He beat me to 95 percent of the loose balls,’’ marveled Griffin, now an assistant on Archie Miller’s Dayton staff. “I’d go, ‘Damn, I’m younger than you, in better shape than you.’ It was all his desire. He’d dive, push you, it didn’t matter. He was going to get the ball.
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“That’s part of his character, part of who he is. The challenge of coaching the University of Washington, he’s going to go after it like he went after those balls.”
When you take a deep dive into Hopkins, who will be unveiled Wednesday at a news conference at Alaska Airlines Arena, a few themes emerge repeatedly. Passion. Compassion. Hard work. Sincerity.
Whether it will all translate head-coaching success is the great unknown, of course. There have been many passionate, compassionate, hard-working and sincere assistant coaches who couldn’t turn those qualities into wins once they sat in the big chair.
But few assistants turned head coach have had the pedigree Hopkins brings to the job, starting with the long apprenticeship under Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim. He might be cranky and have some skeletons in his closet (including a nine-game suspension in 2015 for NCAA violations, when Hopkins went 4-5 as the interim coach) but is undeniably one of the greatest coaches in college history.
By all accounts, it has been Hopkins doing the majority of the scouting and recruiting for the ’Cuse in recent years, while soaking up knowledge from Boeheim. He would do the same under Mike Krzyzewski during various stints as a court coach with Team USA.
“I’ve been able to sit in front of the Wizard of Oz and go behind the curtain,” Hopkins told Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News in 2007 of his long association with Boeheim, whom he was long expected to succeed at Syracuse until Washington athletic director Jen Cohen lured him to Seattle.
“Working for him is like watching a great painter like Picasso. Sometimes they don’t express all their knowledge, but they do see things differently on a canvas.”
His high-school coach in the mid-1980s at Mater Dei, the legendary Gary McKnight — still dominating Southern California boys hoops some three decades later — might have been the first to see the qualities the Huskies hope will turn around their moribund program. His teammates called him “The Hop-erator” out of his respect for Hopkins’ tenacity.
“He’s relentless,” McKnight said in a phone interview. “Mike always was one of my favorites. He really liked learning the game. And I’m telling you, he’ll be out there working. He does not want to not do well.”
Part of Hopkins’ origin story involves him losing 50-2 in driveway games against childhood friend Chris Patton, a nationally ranked prospect, and working ceaselessly until he finally beat him. Another occurred in 1987, when Hopkins had become a key player as a junior for Mater Dei but fractured his left foot late in the season. In the state-title game, Hopkins practically willed McKnight to put him in for the final 30 seconds of their victory.
“He was giving me the stare — ‘Coach, I want to be a part of this,’ ” McKnight said.
It was McKnight who helped fuel Hopkins’ love of a team on the other side of the country when the coach took him to the Syracuse basketball camp after his freshmen year. Hopkins already had become enamored with the rough-and-tumble Big East of Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin as he watched the games, transfixed, in his living room.
But there was the real question whether Hopkins could play at that level, which in characteristic fashion he erased by simply outhustling everyone at the Nike Elite 100 camp.
“Boeheim took a liking to him and gave him a scholarship,” McKnight said. “(As a senior), he was captain of the team.”
And then Hopkins threw himself into coaching at a starting salary of $16,500 as an aide on Boeheim’s staff, where his relationship with Syracuse players was intense and personal and often went far beyond the court. Another story from Griffin:
“He’s the first grown coach I ever saw cry. He’d get so emotional he’d shed a tear, but I knew it was coming from a great, sincere place.”
In Griffin’s junior year, he was despondent when he found himself out of Boeheim’s rotation after starting all 30 games the previous season. It was Hopkins who talked him out of his dark place — and shed a few of those tears in the process.
“He said to me, ‘I’m not going to allow you to run away from this situation. You’re going to fight it and beat it and work your butt off,’ ” Griffin recalled. “He got real emotional, but that’s been the story of my life, who I am right now. That moment got me through so many things that I feel invincible. And it’s all because of Hop.”
Griffin says just about every Syracuse player over the past two decades has a Hop story like that. The details might change, but not the theme, which is why he’s convinced Hopkins will succeed at Washington.
“He’s a beautiful dude, inside and out,” he said. “He’d shine for me on my darkest days. He made me realize there was always a light at the end of the tunnel, and if we want anything, we have to go after it with 100 percent of your heart. He’s going to knock it out of the park at Washington.”
That remains to be seen, of course. But you can sense Hopkins getting ready to dive into the task like it’s a loose ball on the gym floor.