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

Judkins served as a part-time coach under Majerus for two years while also continuing to sell glass, and then was promoted to full-time assistant. He proved an expert recruiter and was widely credited with bringing many star players to the Utes, including future NBA first-round draft picks Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Andre Miller, and the Utes became a national powerhouse, advancing to the national championship game in 1998.

But Majerus was difficult for everyone who worked with him, including Judkins. When the coach heard that Judkins had pursued the head coaching job at BYU after Roger Reid was fired in 1996, he considered it disloyal and their relationship became strained. They managed to co-exist uneasily but the breaking point came in 2000 when Majerus informed Judkins that he was taking some responsibilities away from him. “I was tired of him and the situation,” Judkins says. “He wanted me out. The guy was crazy, calling me at 2 or 3 in the morning for no reason. He made it miserable for me and (fellow assistant coach) Donnie Daniels.”

Judkins called BYU Coach Steve Cleveland to inquire about a job and was hired as director of basketball operations whose responsibilities included helping the women’s team with logistics and academics. A year later the women’s coach, Trent Shippen, hired him as his assistant, and a year after that he replaced Shippen to start the 2001 season.

By 2012, Judkins had become the winningest women’s coach in BYU history. His career record: 282-133. That includes five consecutive seasons of at least 23 wins, six NCAA tournament invitations and two Sweet 16 appearances, with only one losing season

There was a time when Judkins would play against his players in practice, trying to raise their game by making them play against bigger and better competition. Majerus had frequently asked him to do the same thing against his players at Utah, and even in his 40s Judkins was a better player than many of those younger athletes. Judkins practiced occasionally against the BYU women’s team, but stopped a few years ago. For one thing, the 6-foot-6 Judkins is out of shape and has put on weight, but there were other practical considerations, as well.

“I don’t want to hurt them,” says Judkins. “I’m a lot bigger than they are. Plus, it’s hard to coach and play.”

Instead, he followed the practice of many top programs: He created a practice squad composed of male students to compete against his women. He held tryouts for the “gray squad,” and chose five players from the student body, all of them former high school players. They don’t receive anything for their work except shoes, a uniform and exercise.

“At first, they think they’re going to kill the girls,” says Judkins. “Then they realize it’s not going to happen. They beat the girls, but sometimes the girls beat them. It’s been good. The guys are bigger and more athletic and it raises the girls’ game.”

Finding tough practice opponents was something he learned from Majerus, who held tryouts for his own “gray squad” to find students at the university who could push his team harder in practice. Despite their falling out, Judkins says he learned much about coaching from Majerus, who was a fanatic for detail and a master of preparation. Judkins still refers to Majerus simply as “Coach.”

“I learned a lot from Coach,” he says. “He was a great coach. My time with him helped me a lot.”

Judkins is sitting in his cluttered office in the old Smith Fieldhouse as he says this. Photos and memorabilia are stacked on the floor. After 14 years it appears he still hasn’t moved in. He learned early on that this was formerly the office of LaVell Edwards, the great (retired) football coach. He shows up occasionally and pokes his head in the door to look around for a moment.

“I’m in the legend’s office,” says Judkins. “I think about it all the time.”

There is a photo on the wall of Judkins in a Celtics uniform playing on the famed parquet floor of Boston Garden. There is also a drawing of Christ, as well as family photos (he and his wife Mary Kaye have five children) and a shot of him releasing a jump shot in a Ute uniform.

“I really have enjoyed this,” he says, looking around. “Everything about it. The players, the administration, the facilities, the support.”

Like most coaches, he would listen if he were offered another job. He believes there is a chance he could return to the men’s game someday, but moving from a women’s head coaching job to a men’s head coaching job in Division I might be unprecedented. “I can’t say I’ve seen that,” says Judkins. “I’ve seen them become assistants. I know Geno and Summit have had opportunities.” He holds out some hope that he might be given serious consideration for a head coaching position on the men’s side at any of the instate schools, including BYU.

As the conversation turns in this direction, Judkins warms to the subject. “It’s not always the best coach who gets the job,” he says. “Sometimes what makes sense doesn’t happen. People get hired who are not as qualified as someone else. Look what Utah has gone through. Wouldn’t it have been easier if they had hired me and Donnie?” He pauses. “But I came here and I’ve loved what I’m doing.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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