A veteran Seattle college basketball coach once said he used to change jobs every six years because, no matter how much he won, it was almost certain the fans would grow tired of him.
He advised that a voluntary move was best to protect his professional reputation. To confirm this logic, this coach stayed seven seasons in what would be his final coaching position in California. He was fired.
Regarding fan-base discord at the University of Washington, Mike Hopkins might be a year ahead of schedule. Now in season five, he’s been unable to move the needle much with Huskies basketball.
Hopkins initially dazzled by winning right away — Pac-12 Coach of the Year in each of his first two seasons. He followed by giving it all back and more with two horrendous seasons.
This season, Hopkins has had an uptick with a 13-10 team. Yet demonstrating the unevenness of his leadership, the Huskies are coming off a 92-68 home loss Saturday to fourth-ranked Arizona, a game in which they went out in front by 14 in the opening half. All the corresponding excitement from the near-capacity crowd over the big lead turned to a mass exodus from the arena with nine minutes remaining.
“We led what I call the best team in the country by 14,” he said. “That shows our potential.”
It also exposed the Huskies’ major shortcoming. They have no big men who make a difference. Arizona’s post players crushed them.
Instead, Hopkins fields a quaint team built around four homegrown players, all friends who grew up in the Seattle-Tacoma area and transferred to UW from well-established programs: West Virginia, Stanford, TCU and even Arizona.
They came back to the Northwest intrigued by the idea of playing together to finish their college careers and seeking more prominent individual roles. Foremost is 6-foot-3 guard Terrell Brown Jr., who’s gone from Arizona’s sixth-leading scorer at 7.3 points per game last season to leading the Pac-12 with a 22.1 average.
Against his former teammates Saturday, Brown had a dazzling 24-point first half, scoring all but 12 of the Huskies’ points before intermission. He finished with 29.
He’s surrounded by fellow transfers and childhood buddies in forward Emmitt Matthews Jr., and guards Daejon Davis and PJ Fuller, all 7.8- to 11.2-point scorers. Brown, Davis and Fuller played together at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Brown and Davis are cousins.
This would be more of a heart-warming story if these guys had a big man productive enough to make the Huskies anything but a break-even team.
Hopkins tries to get by up front with 6-foot-11 junior Nate Roberts, who has a well-developed physique that is mindful of Dwight Howard, but has zero offensive skills; 7-foot-5 junior Riley Sorn, one of the nation’s tallest players, but good for only short stints because of a lack of endurance; and 6-foot-10 freshman Jackson Grant, a McDonald’s All-America selection who seems a little overwhelmed by the college game.
Two years ago, Hopkins built his team around a pair of 6-foot-9 freshmen in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, both one-and-done now in the NBA, but he ended up with no guards capable of making them look good.
Quade Green, a Kentucky transfer and the newly installed point guard, became academically ineligible at midseason that year. Those Huskies lost 13 of their final 17 games. There was no one left to get the ball to Stewart and McDaniels.
A year ago, UW was a patchwork that quickly unraveled into a disastrous 5-21 team. A poor recruiting class and the early departures of Stewart and McDaniels led to the second-worst record in program annals.
This season, Hopkins’ newly assembled team began slowly. At one point, the Husky leader lost 41 of 56 games over parts of three seasons. Not a lot of coaches survive such a downturn.
Hopkins continues on the job because he is extremely well-liked by all. Folksy, funny, funky.
After losing to Arizona, he sat down in front of a room of reporters and cameras and described what happened by going back in time with a single word: “Bummer.”
Yet behind his over-sized personality are serious questions concerning the ability of this former right-hand man to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to make UW basketball a happening.
Losses aside, Hopkins has a recruiting record that remains suspect. His sideline coaching prowess, the ability to re-direct momentum changes, seems limited. Note that 14-point lead over Arizona turning into a 24-point setback.
Some suggest he was an early winner for the Huskies only because he inherited the talented Matisse Thybulle and Jaylen Nowell.
Truth be told, Hopkins took on a job — it’s not clear whether he actually knew this — where college basketball coaches come to get fired. His five predecessors all got the ax: Marv Harshman, Andy Russo, Lynn Nance, Bob Bender and Lorenzo Romar.
They provided the occasional NCAA tournament berth, but none went deeper than the sweet 16. They won a couple of conference tournament championships, well-spaced apart. They supplied the occasional All-America player, but just one first-teamer in Brandon Roy.
Yet the last basketball coach to leave on his own volition for another coaching opportunity, or retire without undue pressure, was Tex Winter, who resigned in 1971 to coach the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
Back then, dunking was banned and the three-point shot didn’t exist. A different game, but Winter was welcome in Montlake to the end.
Of course, he coached the Huskies for just three seasons, giving no one the chance to grow weary of him.
Hopkins might not be so lucky.
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