You can’t understand Hopkins, and how much he’s diving into the rebuild of the Huskies, without coming back to the sheer force of his personality. He exudes energy even when in seeming repose. “You’re not used to seeing anything like that in your lifetime,” says an ex-teammate.
Mike Hopkins tends to cry easily.
It’s part of his makeup and a window into his psyche. The new Washington men’s basketball coach is a fount of passion, and he tends to become so emotionally invested in his players, in his work — in everything — that it leaves him highly vulnerable to what the emoji-driven world likes to call “all the feels.”
“It’s because I care so much,” he explains as he chokes up during an interview in his office while relating the story of when he told his mentor, Jim Boeheim, that he was leaving his Syracuse job as Boeheim’s heir apparent to head to Seattle; and again while telling the story of how proud he was of former Orange player Scoop Jardine for becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college; and again while telling the story of how his dad talked him out of transferring from Syracuse when he was a player, mired on the bench after two seasons.
E. Washington @ UW, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
You can’t understand Hopkins, and how fully throttled he’s diving into the rebuild of the Huskies’ basketball program, without coming back to the sheer force of his personality. He exudes kinetic energy even when in seeming repose (a state rarely reached by a guy who is known to talk on two phones simultaneously, the better to squeeze more results into his waking day). He has brought a near-maniacal drive to basketball since his playing days; Boeheim admits he never thought Hopkins had the stuff to be anything but a role player (he became a two-year starter and team captain).
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“Mike was a guy I frankly didn’t have high hopes for as a player,” Boeheim said in a phone interview. “He was more of a project guy. But he wanted to get better. He outworked everybody. He was on the floor 10 to 12 times every practice, and 10 to 12 times in the game. He became a very good college player.”
Granted, that’s pretty standard stuff in the sporting world — another yarn about an underdog with a chip on his shoulder and a caffeine-laced personality (eye-roll emoji) — but Hopkins takes it to an extreme that makes him stand out even within that cliché.
“Mike was a cross between an MMA guy and (UW rower) Joe Rantz from ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ ” says former Syracuse teammate Tim O’Toole, now an assistant coach at California. “He would have died fighting to succeed at ’Cuse.”
Marv Marinovich, a family friend and former NFL player, warned Hopkins when he went off to college in the rugged Big East that he was going to be perceived as soft because he came from Orange County in California (with flowing strawberry-blonde surfer hair, no less — Justin Bieber-like, in the words of his wife Tricia to Sports Illustrated). The first time someone challenges you, Marinovich told Hopkins, “you fight ’em like you’ve never fought before.”
Flash forward to one of his early practices at Syracuse in what turned out to be a redshirt first season in 1988. Every day was a test of survival among the star-studded cast he walked into that included Sherman Douglas, Billy Owens and Derrick Coleman, all future high NBA draft picks. But it was a walk-on, Dave Bartelstein, who pushed Hopkins’ buttons one day with his elbows and aggression.
Channeling Marinovich, Hopkins bopped him in the mouth. He didn’t get pushed around any more after that.
“Everyone was trying to test me from day one,” Hopkins said. “You had to set the tone. It was just fighting for your space and showing, ‘I’m here to play. I’m not here to just be an ornament.’ ”
You might think that story is apocryphal, maybe embellished for maximum effect. I contacted Bartelstein, now an executive with an investment firm in Chicago, for confirmation.
Mike Hopkins, 47, is the 19th head coach in Washington basketball history.
Coaching at Syracuse: He spent 22 seasons alongside Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim. He was a part of 16 NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2003 National Championship, four Final Fours, five Elite Eights and 10 Sweet 16s.
Playing at Syracuse: Hopkins became the Orange’s starting shooting guard his junior year and the team won the 1992 Big East Championship. He played 111 career games in the Carrier Dome and was the team captain as a senior en route to averaging 9.2 points and 3.7 rebounds.
Pro career: CBA, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Family: Wife Tricia, sons Michael Griffith Jr. and Grant Richard, daughter Ella Grace.
Source: UW athletics
“Of course I remember it,” he said with a laugh. “I still have the scar on my lip.”
Bartelstein explained that he and Hopkins were friends then and now, “but when we got between the lines, it was no holds barred. I was giving it to Mike more than he thought I should. I’m 5-11, he’s 6-4. He didn’t like a walk-on talking too much to him and showing him up, and the next thing you know, he had a fist in my face.
“He was a tough, hard-nosed guy. He didn’t care if it was me or Derrick Coleman, he’d go through you.”
Said O’Toole: “Hop is not going to back down for any human being. He’ll fight you in the most clean, human way.”
Leo Rautins, a former Syracuse star who had returned to the area, took a liking to young Hopkins and would engage him in after-hours workouts at Most Holy Rosary Parish. Rautins would try to toughen him up with the kind of trash talk and rough play he knew Hopkins would have to weather to succeed in the Big East.
“He loved it,’’ Rautins said. “He’d get pissed off but kept coming back for more.”
The Syracuse coaching staff saw this, ate it up and tucked it away. Tim Welsh, the assistant coach who picked up Hopkins at the airport when he arrived from California, remembers walking into Boeheim’s office and asking him, “How the heck is this kid going to play for us?”
Elaborating more than 25 years later, Welsh said, “I looked around the room, and we had Sherman Douglas and Stevie Thompson and Billy Owens and Derrick Coleman and Dave Johnson — all these men. And you have this little, skinny, pale kid from Southern California who weighed about a buck-fifty, buck-sixty.”
Welsh, who would go on to be the coach at Iona and Providence, began to be won over when Hopkins agitated Douglas so much in a 3-on-3 drill one day that Douglas swung an elbow and bloodied Hopkins’ nose. Hopkins went into Welsh’s office afterward and told him he would get back at Douglas by beating him out for the starting job. Welsh laughs at the memory, because Douglas at the time was a first-team All-American and the consensus choice as the top point guard in the nation.
“But I said, ‘You know what? I like this guy. He’s going to make it here,’ ” Welsh recalled. “I had my doubts, but he’s going to make it through grit, toughness and hard work. That has been his MO ever since. Just outwork and out-tough people.”
Boeheim, especially, loved that style of play, seeing an image of himself, a former walk-on at Syracuse who forged a successful playing career, in Hopkins.
“Boeheim himself was an overachiever, and when he looks at players, if you bring that, it’s a way to get him to appreciate what you do,” Rautins said. “If you come across as being soft, you might get buried on the bench. If you show him that fight, that’s what he was like. We don’t get too far from our roots.”
It was the beginning of what would become the seminal relationship of Hopkins’ life outside his family. The Syracuse basketball family is vast and tight-knit. It reveres Boeheim, warts and all, after 41 years as the coach who has produced more than 1,000 wins. But just about everyone who has passed through Syracuse agrees that Boeheim is closer with Hopkins than anyone, and that Hopkins worships Boeheim.
“Hop would have died for him,” O’Toole said. “That’s who he is.”
Flash back again to 1995, when Hopkins’ itinerant pro career had ended after various short stops in the CBA and Europe — “I was fired more times than you can get fired” — and he returned home presumably to work at his father’s manufacturing company, PaperPak Products. But his dad had just laid off six workers and didn’t think it was right to hire his son.
“So I was a depressed kid who just got fired from something he did from 7 in the morning until 10 at night for the last whatever many years,” Hopkins said. “Now I’m supposed to work for my dad, but it’s so bad my dad can’t even hire me. So I sat on the couch, eating Doritos and watching the O.J. Simpson trial like I was an actual lawyer.”
It was Marinovich who coaxed Hopkins out of his funk and into giving individual basketball lessons to local kids, which segued into a stint as an AAU coach, until fate intervened. O’Toole was leaving his assistant’s job at Syracuse to move to Duke. He called his old teammate Hop (no one associated with Syracuse ever adds the second syllable) and told him he’d be the perfect replacement. At O’Toole’s urging, Hopkins called Boeheim, who invited Hopkins up to work his camp. That led to an offer to be Boeheim’s restricted-earnings coach, an entry-level position.
“I was living in a fraternity house making $16,000 a year, and I was in heaven,” Hopkins said.
Four years later, Hopkins was elevated to full-fledged staff member, which allowed him to dive into recruiting. His first class yielded Hakim Warrick, Craig Forth, Billy Edelin and Josh Pace, and the next year Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara. That group was the core of Syracuse’s national-title team in 2003.
“Right away, he got three-fifths of the starting lineup of our national championship,” Boeheim said. “He had numerous recruiting successes. He’s very good with people.
Over time, Boeheim ceded more responsibility to Hopkins, not only recruiting but scouting and helping run practice.
“What I saw from my old coach, he was totally trusting of Hop,” said Stevie Thompson, now an Oregon State assistant. “He leaned on him in all aspects of the program.”
Job overtures came over the years — UNC-Charlotte, Oregon State, St. Bonaventure, Boston College and others — but invariably, Hopkins would pull out to stay with Boeheim. And when he was interested, it never worked out. Hopkins pursued the USC opening in 2013, liking the idea of being near his parents, Griffin and Sue, but the Trojans chose Andy Enfield.
In 2007, Syracuse designated Hopkins to be Boeheim’s successor, but that was more of a theoretical designation, because the old coach showed no signs of waning. In June 2015, amid an NCAA investigation into transgressions at Syracuse, which resulted in Boeheim’s suspension for nine games (with Hopkins compiling a 4-5 record as the head man during the absence), the university announced a formal succession plan: Hopkins would take over for Boeheim after the 2017-18 season. It was written into his contract.
So that was that, except those around the program wondered if Boeheim was really ready to leave, especially with his son, Buddy, an accomplished high-school player, about to join the program next season. It had the makings of an awkward situation, saved from that only by the depth of their relationship.
“We’re so close, it was never a problem,” Boeheim said. “He always had the freedom to look, and he got close on a couple of jobs, people that probably should have hired him, and a couple of places that were not good jobs.
“He looked; it wasn’t that he wasn’t thinking about it. Coach-in-waiting can be very tough when there’s no end in sight. We finally did get an end date, but it was five or six years after it was originally set.”
Even though both parties have said — and still say — they were fully prepared to go through with the transition next year had not the Washington job come about, many have doubts that Hopkins would have had the stomach to coach Syracuse if he felt Boeheim wasn’t ready to step down.
“The amount of respect and admiration Mike has for Coach Boeheim, he was going to respect how Coach Boeheim wanted to handle it, contract or not,” said Bret Just, Hopkins’ agent. “It’s a father-son relationship.”
Meanwhile, in theoretical discussions Just had with Hopkins about appealing jobs, Washington had always intrigued him. So when Husky athletic director Jennifer Cohen called in March, Just perked up. And when he presented it to Hopkins, he did, too — especially after he talked to Cohen and found their vision aligned. Washington fulfilled what Hopkins had always said was his three-pronged criteria for the perfect job: people, place and potential.
Hopkins’ “frenetic reaction” to Washington’s interest, to use Just’s phrase, and the whirlwind courtship, resulted in Hopkins accepting the job three days later, without visiting Seattle. Before it was announced, Hopkins told only a handful of people — his wife and three kids, his parents, the athletic director and chancellor at Syracuse and, of course, Boeheim. Hopkins didn’t want the story to leak, out of respect to Washington, but he also didn’t want anyone to pick and gnaw at this feeling he had that he finally found the place to lure him out of Syracuse after nearly three decades. He was 47 and ready to be a creator instead of a caretaker.
“It was just what I felt in my heart,” he said. “The reason I didn’t tell anyone, I wanted the decision to be organic, and authentic.”
But first, Hopkins had to tell Boeheim, the toughest conversation of them all. The coach was hurrying off to see his daughter play in the state tournament, so they had to do it quickly. Hopkins went to Boeheim’s house, just down the street, to break the news.
“Listen, you’ve been incredible to me,” Hopkins began. “I just wanted you to know I took the head-coaching job at the University of Washington.”
Sitting in his office last week, Hopkins mimicked Boeheim’s incredulous double-take.
He said, “No (bleep)? No way! But he was excited, he was proud,” said Hopkins, his voice catching. “Obviously, I had been there so long, those are the moments that are hard. But on the flip side, I knew I was doing the right thing because it was in my heart.”
Boeheim said his surprise was because Hopkins leaving wasn’t something he had thought about for a while. Once it settled in, Boeheim was “through the moon excited for Hop,” Just said. “It’s how you feel about your own son getting a job.”
Said Boeheim: “I’m really happy for Mike. Obviously, you want your assistants to have a chance to be a head coach, and he was ready. He’s been ready for quite a while, really. I think he wanted to do it right away. He didn’t want to wait another year. He’ll get that program in a good position, too.”
A contract extension for Boeheim, reported to be through the 2021-22 season, was announced by Syracuse less than 12 hours after Hopkins took the Washington job.
Now we’ll see if Hopkins can translate his all-in style to his new life as a head coach. At Syracuse, he would invest in all aspects of his players’ lives, staying after practice as long as they wanted for extra work, helping them navigate through personal crises and schooling issues.
Some wonder if he can have the same level of involvement as the head man. Jason Hart, now a USC assistant, scoffs at that. Hart played at Syracuse from 1996 to 2000 and tearfully called Hopkins his “white angel” while accepting Syracuse’s Vic Hanson Medal of Excellence in 2011.
“I think you are who you are, head coach or assistant,” Hart said last week. “You don’t have to become a (jerk) just because you are head coach. You can still have love and compassion for your players. You don’t have to be mean to them. You can still hold them every day. That’s how basketball should be. That’s who Hop is.”
And that’s who Hopkins vows he will be — the same guy that, when conducting youth clinics, will talk about diving for loose balls and then demonstrate by suddenly diving into a group of kids. “Not many guys finish a clinic and have cuts and bruises,” Rautins said. “I can get tired watching him coach because of the energy.”
Hopkins vows to be the same guy who, according to Bartelstein, “would run through a wall but also think about it before doing it.”
The same guy who, says Stevie Thompson, “is going to outwork people but also has a certain charm and charisma that is infectious.”
The same guy who, Welsh notes, “has the innate ability to be the hardest worker but also be likable. Sometimes the hardest worker, they’re annoying, because they tell you about it. Mike doesn’t have to sell himself. He’s never, ever promoted himself.”
Hopkins vows to be the same guy who, according to close friend Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports, “is so competitive that it’s an insatiable appetite. The guy can’t stop learning. … He’s going to get in your act, head to toe. It’s a game-changer. A lot of kids don’t know how to deal with it at first.”
Says O’Toole: “It’s almost like (U.S. Olympic hockey coach) Herb Brooks in ‘Miracle.’ Not one thing that transpires is not well thought out. He’s got more energy than God, knows when to inject humor and when to get on your tail. People might use the word crazy, but it’s as far removed as you can get. You’re not used to seeing anything like that in your lifetime.”
Hopkins knows he must change a culture at Washington, and he knows it won’t happen overnight. He knows there will be, as he put it, “the crying days and the banging-the-head-on-the-walls nights.” The UW players still don’t know quite what hit them as they adjust to a coach who is likely to take them to a boxing gym one day and run up a mountain with them the next, but Hopkins is thrilled with their buy-in.
Says returning player Noah Dickerson, “He came in and changed up almost everything we thought about college basketball.”
In his office, Hopkins is tearing up again, trying to convey what coaching means to him and why he can’t do it any other way.
“The one thing I always saw when I was the 15th man on the team, the coaches did a great job keeping me engaged, keeping me focused on what I had to do to eventually get on that court,” he said. “I always said that’s the type of coach I wanted to be. That’s why I got into coaching, because of the impact coaches had on me.
“Even when it was bad. Even when I walked home from the Carrier Dome after a game already dressed when everybody had their uniform still on. That was my revolt at the time — walking back in a snowstorm, crying like a baby, tears frozen, boogers frozen on my nose, sitting under a tree and (teammate) LeRon Ellis’ mom pulling up in a station wagon asking me to get in the car, I’m going to get sick.
“ ‘Just go. Just go. I’m transferring. I’m leaving.’ Then you’re talking to your dad, and your dad’s inspiring you to stay, and it’s tough, you’ve got to fight through it.
“That’s why I love coaching.”