UPDATED: March 23, 2017 at 10:57 a.m.
SEATTLE — Mike Hopkins’ first official day at his new workplace began shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday morning.
He strode through a barren Alaska Airlines Arena, sporting a black suit, white button-down shirt and foreign purple tie. Outside, the gray skies produced an intermittent drizzle. Scared wasn’t the word. But Hopkins is unfamiliar with change. He gazed at the empty bleachers surrounding his new court and found himself alone, an entire country away from the place he called home for 28 years.
“Holy shiitake mushrooms,” Hopkins thought. “This thing could rock.”
Just four days after sitting in the middle of a Carrier Dome bench for the last time, and four hours before his first public appearance as a head coach, Hopkins’ career dream had finally crystallized. This was his, all his, unlike 2,500 miles east. Back in Syracuse remains skepticism as to why Hopkins left when his supposed dream job of being the Orange’s head coach sat one year away with Jim Boeheim planning to step down. There’s doubt here, too, as to how a first-time head coach can re-charter a program that failed to reach double-digit wins this season with a potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick.
In this moment, though, Hopkins found serenity.
“It’s the unknown, it’s charting the waters, it’s exciting,” Hopkins told The Daily Orange after being introduced at Washington. “And I’m sitting here going, ‘Gosh, what could this be?’”
After more than two decades as Boeheim’s disciple, Hopkins accepted the head-coaching job at the University of Washington on Friday. The 47-year-old still insists Syracuse’s head-coaching job would’ve been his in one year, that his mentor had no intentions of staying. Still, this opportunity to start anew in a career scattered with them felt different.
Hopkins officially ditched the plan to uphold a 42-year-legacy after next season to begin his own. The shocking move rippled through SU basketball, as Syracuse extended Boeheim’s contract reportedly through the 2021-22 season. To finally capture what he’d craved for so long, Hopkins left behind the only school he ever knew.
Daily Orange File Photo
Hopkins called Boeheim early Saturday afternoon and asked if he could come over. Boeheim obliged, but Hopkins needed to be quick. Jamie Boeheim, a Jamesville-DeWitt (New York) High School junior, had a basketball game that night in Troy for the state playoffs and the Boeheims were leaving soon. The two families live in the same Fayetteville neighborhood, but the cold forced Hopkins to drive a few houses down.
Hopkins entered the house, turned left and joined the 72-year-old in a side room. Boeheim closed the doors, which surprised his wife, Juli. Sitting on a couch, Hopkins told his boss. The two grown men at the top of their profession were made vulnerable.
“You know I’m a big crier,” Hopkins said. “You know that.”
Two nights before, lying in bed with his wife, Tricia, Hopkins couldn’t fall asleep. Tricia pestered her husband about his back-and-forth with his soon-to-be new boss after the two spoke on the phone earlier Thursday. First-year UW Director of Athletics Jennifer Cohen had called Bret Just, Hopkins’ agent, notifying him of the Huskies’ interest in his client. When Just relayed the message to Hopkins, it piqued his interest more than any other inquiry had. His restlessness brought back memories of waking up at 2 a.m. as a California kid to write alternating scenes of a screenplay with his friend.
Hopkins’ name has been on the Huskies’ radar for “a long time,” Cohen told The Daily Orange. (UW fired Lorenzo Romar, its coach of 15 years, on March 15.) Still, the AD didn’t know if Hopkins would bite considering his pending takeover, and the mutual interest surprised her. Hopkins made his final decision after meeting with Cohen in Syracuse on Friday.
“He had started to allow himself to dream,” Cohen said, “about maybe something different than what he’s always known.”
On Wednesday, tucked away in a team room below court level in Alaska Airlines Arena, Hopkins recited an excerpt from his favorite book, “Change or Die,” by Alan Deutschman, like he owned the lead in a school play.
“Eighty-five percent of all inmates, five years after they get out, they’re incarcerated again,” Hopkins explained. “But there’s a place named Delancey Street in San Francisco where this woman has created this system. … It’s built on a philosophy of immigrant families where if you don’t know how to read, the oldest one teaches you how to read and there’s accountability and you start from the bottom and you work your way out. If you’re on drugs, there’s no medication, nothing, you’re cold turkey. They have an 85-percent success rate that they’re put back in the community and they’re doing it. And so, ‘Change or Die,’ I think when you stop growing, you can die.”
Though Hopkins always said he didn’t come to Syracuse to coach at Syracuse — he simply wanted to be the best coach on the planet — he still hoped that dream would work out at SU. He had earned his spurs in the Carmelo K. Anthony Center, developed into an elite recruiter, led daily practices and was seemingly groomed for the head job, whenever it may be. St. Bonaventure interviewed the rising star for its head coaching job in spring 2003 and the attention never stopped.
In the next decade, Hopkins was linked to a handful of jobs. He nearly left for the University of Southern California in 2013. Two or three times, he sought advice from Lazarus Sims, formerly a teammate and fellow SU assistant. Sims urged Hopkins to take the opportunities to gain experience as a head coach then return to SU at the right time. Hopkins still passed, Sims said, out of loyalty for the school, program and coach.
“A lot of the times when I was there,” said Michael Carter-Williams, a Hopkins recruit who started every game on SU’s 2013 Final Four team, “it seemed like Hop was the head coach. Not stepping on Boeheim’s toes, but Boeheim had faith in Hop.”
Hopkins wanted to be a head coach for real. He confided to one friend that he didn’t want to be like Bill Guthridge, a 30-year assistant at North Carolina under Dean Smith. Guthridge coached the Tar Heels for three seasons after Smith stepped down in 1997 and made two Final Fours before retiring himself.
“When the waters get rough, the sharks keep swimming,” said Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports who has worked with Hopkins for 12 years. “Mike is a fun guy, very likeable. But he’s also shark-like.”
On Saturday, the group of people Hopkins told stayed small to avoid a leak. It included Director of Athletics John Wildhack, Chancellor Kent Syverud (who never responded to Hopkins’ call), Tricia, the three Hopkins children and Hopkins’ parents, Griffin and Sue. But before any of them, Jim Boeheim.
Hopkins’ decision came the season after Boeheim had lost the most games in his career, to cap a four-year stretch in which Syracuse started 25-0 in 2013-14, self-imposed a postseason ban in 2015 and became the first-ever No. 10 seed to make the Final Four last year.
Hopkins walked out the Boeheim’s front door around 4:30 p.m. and back to his car. The reality set in: It was actually over. The seemingly unbreakable pair had broken because the student couldn’t turn down this offer to become the teacher.
The four Boeheims left shortly after Hopkins for Troy. Hopkins piloted his car toward home, which after so many years would only be home for a short while longer.
Daily Orange File Photo
Hopkins planned to call everyone he wanted to tell, but Twitter got there first. On Sunday morning, sitting on a couch at his house in an upstairs office with Just, Hopkins’ phone throbbed. At 11:13 a.m., CBS Sports broke the news.
Hopkins compared that morning to the Geico commercials about mayhem where a cell phone vibrates uncontrollably under a car seat. He physically couldn’t scroll through his phone fast enough. He had managed a few calls to fellow assistants Adrian Autry and Gerry McNamara, as well as director of basketball operations Kip Wellman.
The news shocked everyone else at first. George Denninghoff, who had Hopkins as the best man in his wedding, disbelievingly watched ESPN. Team PR director Pete Moore found out when a fan at his son’s basketball tournament at Le Moyne College showed him a tweet. Mike Hart, the St. Andrew’s (Rhode Island) School coach who had sent multiple players to Syracuse in large part because of Hopkins, was with former Hopkins recruit Demetris Nichols in Athens, Greece, when he received a text. Both were stunned. Hopkins had been at Hart’s gym scouting a few weeks prior and enthusiastically chatted about his future at SU.
In leaving, Hopkins departed from not just the only environment he’s stayed in since he was 18, but also how life had been modeled for him. The only coaches Hopkins ever had for a significant time — Gary McKnight at Mater Dei (California) High School and Boeheim at Syracuse — have each been with their school for at least 33 years.
Yet the surprise slowly subsided as those close to him realized: It was time. Hopkins’ desire to become a head coach had finally trumped his love for Syracuse. Hopkins parents were also growing older in Southern California. “It was a sudden thing,” McKnight said. “He was looking for the right situation.” He had interviewed for plenty of jobs before — including Charlotte, Oregon State, Boston College — but none had checked off his three boxes: place, potential and people.
Still, why Washington? Why now? Why leave one year away from the dream job at the dream school?
“There was a lot of soul searching,” Hopkins said. “… I had an opportunity to be a builder and not a protector, and the building part for me at this stage… I don’t know why or when or how… It was like meeting your wife when you just knew.”
Some believe Hopkins only left because Boeheim wanted to stay. Some of Hopkins’ friends say they sensed Hopkins felt that way. Boeheim never wanted the term limit that came in the campus-wide email sent following NCAA sanctions on March 18, 2015. It was “a mistake,” he said, for Syverud to state Boeheim would retire after the 2017-18 season.
“I fully intended 100 percent, 100 percent, to leave after next year,” Boeheim said at Monday’s press conference with Wildhack. “… I fully knew that next year would be my last year. I never ever thought anything else. Ever.”
Skepticism extends beyond local fans and into the Syracuse program itself about Boeheim’s assertions that he didn’t want to stay longer. Only Boeheim and Hopkins know the truth, but that doesn’t matter now. Boeheim is at Syracuse and Hopkins, Washington. And, finally, Hopkins fell back asleep.
Courtesy of UW Athletics
At 11:57 a.m. on Wednesday, over an hour before Hopkins’ press conference began, the Hopkins family, minus Mike, walked through the tunnel in Alaska Airlines Arena. Griff, the oldest child; Grant Richard, the middle; Ella, the youngest; and along with their mother posed for a family picture on their new home court clad in purple. Griff dazed into the rafters, absorbing the nearly empty gym before dad first publicly appeared as head coach.
“This is so sweet,” he said.
“This is awesome,” Grant Richard echoed.
Ella couldn’t believe there were four seats set aside at the front of the press conference just for them.
Throughout the building, Hopkins’ face covered TV screens and jumbotrons. Testimonials from Mike Krzyzewski and Carmelo Anthony reassured the roughly 200 people filling the lower bleachers that the first-time head coach could succeed right away. Electronic banners read, “Welcome to the Hopkins Era.”
When the 47-year-old emerged from the tunnel to the noise of 25 band members and four cheerleaders, Hopkins held Tricia’s right hand with his left and kissed her on the lips. “I love you, babe,” he said and headed to the podium, where she and the kids sat to his right. Hopkins looked different in a black suit and purple tie. This, though, wasn’t his first press conference acting as a head coach.
His first came after Boeheim forced him to speak after losing to North Carolina State on March 7, 2015 one day after the NCAA levied sanctions on SU. Hopkins twice called Boeheim a “superhero” and said, “This is my first. Am I doing OK? A couple tears, almost.” After 10 minutes Hopkins left the podium for the locker room and Boeheim.
Ten months later, Syracuse lost to Clemson and Hopkins’ nine-game stint as interim head coach expired along with Boeheim’s suspension. Two hours later, Hopkins returned the team to Boeheim at a midnight practice in the Carmelo K. Anthony Center.
This time, Hopkins left the podium and Boeheim wasn’t there. Not immediately, not in two hours, not in the foreseeable future.
He stepped off the stage to his left while his family shifted to their right, mingling with fans in attendance. Hopkins ducked into the tunnel, away from the commotion, his own era officially underway.
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, the day Mike Hopkins accepted the head-coaching job at the University of Washington was misstated. Hopkins accepted the job on Friday, March 17, after meeting with University of Washington Director of Athletics Jennifer Cohen in Syracuse. The Daily Orange regrets this error.
—Senior Staff Writers Paul Schwedelson and Connor Grossman contributed reporting to this story.
—Graphics by Andy Mendes | Design Editor
—Banner photo by Bryan Cereijo | Staff Photographer
Published on March 23, 2017 at 1:16 am