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Doug Robinson: It has been a winding, successful road for BYU women's coach Jeff Judkins

Published: Friday, May 2 2014 7:15 p.m. MDT

BYU women's basketball head coach Jeff Judkins sits in his office at BYU in Provo on Thursday, April 24, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

PROVO — Jeff Judkins — the former star athlete at Highland High and the University of Utah, the former Celtic, the former Rick Majerus assistant, the former glass salesman — has had many iterations, but no one saw this one coming: Head coach of a women’s basketball team — at BYU.

The Cougars and Judkins were celebrated for their 28-7 run through the 2013-14 season, which ended with a loss to eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16, but unnoticed were the twists and turns of fate that were required to land Judkins here …

From the men’s game to the women’s game, from the packed houses of the NBA to the largely empty areana of women’s NCAA basketball, from Utah to archrival BYU, from the profane, testosterone-fueled domain of Rick Majerus to the tamer environment at BYU, where practice begins with a prayer.

He had seen only a couple of women’s collegiate games when he came to BYU 14 years ago, but by then he had had enough of Majerus, the temperamental Utes coach who both pulled him back into basketball and then sent him running for refuge at BYU. Judkins only wanted two things for a post-NBA profession: To be a head basketball coach and to remain in Utah. He got both when he agreed to take the women’s job at BYU.

Reasoning that he had no head coaching experience, he figured it would “open some doors” for a job on the men’s side. Then he started working with the women’s game and came to embrace it. There are even aspects of it that he thinks are superior to the men’s game; players don’t overpower the game but rely more on the finesse and teamwork that purists appreciate.

The Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 in Judkins’ first season and the coach was all in. “My dream was to be a head coach,” he says. “It didn’t make a difference if they were women. I had daughters who were athletes. Do you cheer louder for your son or daughter?”

The women, he discovered, needed him and others with his expertise. At every level of the game — youth leagues, club, high school, college, pros — he had received expert coaching, but that wasn’t the case with women, especially in those days.

They hung on every word that came out of his mouth. “Am I happy here?” he says. “Yes. I’ve done something good for a lot of people. My coaching abilities have helped people who weren’t as fortunate as I was. One thing I noticed is they really want to learn. Many of them never had good coaching like the guys do. So they are a sponge. Women’s basketball has improved immensely — the players, the coaching, everything. Let me put it this way: (UConn coach) Geno Auriemma, (former Tennessee coach) Pat Summit and (Oregon coach) Kelly Graves could coach anywhere.”

There were adjustments he had to make for the women’s game. The PC crowd tells you there are no differences between men and women, but that doesn’t cut it when you deal with realities on a daily basis. The women, he discovered, were considerably more sensitive, and Judkins had just spent 10 years coaching under the late Majerus, an intense, loud, in-your-face coach whose language would’ve made Hollywood blush, and now he was not only at straight-laced BYU but he was coaching women.

“The girls were way more sensitive and need way more praise,” he says. “They don’t respond to yelling. They’re more emotional and they’re perfectionists. They would notice if my tie was off. Same in basketball. When I would tell them something, they wanted to know why. Guys don’t do that. They just do it. The girls wanted to know, ‘Why are we eating four hours before a game? Why do we do walk-throughs?’ It’s hard sometimes because you have to explain things more to them.”

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