PROVO — During his 14-year tenure as BYU’s head basketball coach, there were times when Dave Rose expressed his desire to take the Cougars to a place they’ve never been before — the Final Four.
Rose tasted that experience as a player at the University of Houston in 1983. Going deep into the NCAA Tournament was always a motivating factor for Rose and his staff. He believed it could happen.
It's never happened, of course. In fact, BYU holds a dubious record — most NCAA Tournament appearances without ever reaching the Final Four.
The closest the Cougars came to those heights was in 2011 when they advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years, despite having lost one of their top players, Brandon Davies, near the end of the regular season.
Oh, what might have been with one of the program's best teams, featuring national player of the year Jimmer Fredette.
But not going to the Final Four doesn't diminish what Rose accomplished during his career in Provo.
On Tuesday, Rose retired as BYU’s winningest coach with a win percentage of .720. He recorded 13 straight 20-win seasons, 348 victories and guided the Cougars to eight NCAA Tournament bids.
While Rose's legacy is remarkable, the biggest win of his life was beating cancer in 2009.
Still, during his retirement press conference, Rose mentioned a void on his coaching resume.
“I won’t leave here with any regrets at all as far as how hard we worked, how hard we tried, how we tried to do it the right way with the right people. But I will leave here wishing we had done a little bit more,” Rose said. “I played in the Final Four. I wanted to come here and get our team to the Final Four and we came close one year. But it didn’t happen for us. That will be something that maybe, hopefully, another guy can come in here and get it done.”
Certainly, it will be difficult for anyone to replicate what Rose achieved during his time at BYU — let alone achieve more.
Jackson Emery was part of that 2011 team that played in the Sweet 16. He was one of many of Rose’s former players that attended his farewell press conference.
“I’ve always been impressed with the way he set the bar as far as expectations for individuals and players, like helping players get to the next level, if that’s what they want to do,” Emery said about Rose’s legacy. “For the program, it was about winning conference championships and going to the NCAA Tournament, being nationally recognized. And he made sure he developed individuals that represented the program the right way. He did a lot to build the Marriott Center Annex and making modifications to the Marriott Center. He had goals and visions in those areas. Where the program is today? For what he’s done for a consistent amount of years, he’s done a phenomenal job of making sure that program’s been very competitive.”
Travis Hansen, who played for BYU when Rose was one of Steve Cleveland’s assistants, was filled with an array of emotions last Tuesday.
“I love the guy. I feel how much he and his family have invested. It’s amazing how invested he’s been for so long. To see that season of his life come to an end and retire, it was heart-wrenching," Hansen said. "He’s going to miss it because basketball’s a big part of who he is. He’s had unprecedented stability. It’s incredible what he’s been able to accomplish. I think he could keep pushing himself to do it but, like he said, his soul was tired. Anytime you get those feelings, you should listen to them. Those whispers are telling you something. I think he made a good choice for him and his family.”
As Rose steps down, for BYU, it's not about the program going to the Final Four. The Cougars have to qualify for the NCAA Tournament first. BYU hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 2015.
Right now, the Cougars would be thrilled with a berth to the First Four, which is where Rose led them in 2012 and 2015.
“First and foremost, BYU needs to get back to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve fallen short the last few years. It’s getting back to competing at a national level every March,” Emery said. “That’s the No. 1 goal. BYU has not won a West Coast Conference championship yet. That’s ultimately a goal as well. You’re in the same conference with Gonzaga, which most likely could win any other conference. When you have Gonzaga in there as the 500-pound gorilla, it makes it that much more difficult. Your margin of error is extremely thin in that conference. That makes it difficult when you’re trying to win a conference championship.”
Skyler Halford was part of that 2015 team and he’s surprised the Cougars are going through a four-year NCAA Tournament drought.
“It’s hard to pinpoint why things happen the way they do,” Halford said. “They’ve been successful but every year is different. They’ve been talented. But it’s hard when you’re in the West Coast Conference with a team like Gonzaga.”
Some point to a drop-off in recruiting as a reason for BYU’s slide but it may have more to do with retaining players. The day after Rose retired, Yoeli Childs announced he’s leaving the Cougars and forgoing his senior year to turn pro. It’s the third straight year that BYU has lost its leading scorer — Eric Mika in 2017 and Elijah Bryant in 2018 are the others — with eligibility remaining. Both Mika and Bryant are playing overseas.
Yet Emery is optimistic about the future of BYU basketball.
“People are a little hard on this team after this season. They didn’t get to 20 wins. They got to 19. People look at this year as a failure," he said. "I take a step back and think, wait a second. They went 3-1 against in-state teams. They finished tied for second in the conference, which was the toughest top-to-bottom the league has ever been. People overlook that. They want to win the conference championship but taking second was no small feat."
Many tend to forget that when Rose arrived as an assistant in 1997, the Cougars were coming off a 1-25 campaign and the goal back then simply was to have a winning record.
"When people say BYU needs to rebuild the program, I just laugh. A lot of people forget how things were in the mid-1990s when coach Rose came here. That’s rebuilding a program," Emery said. "A program that’s consistently won 20 games, that’s not rebuilding a program. It’s focusing on what to do next. How do we get back to the NCAA Tournament? We’ve taken a minor step back. But I’m absolutely optimistic. Whoever comes in will bring a lot of energy. There are good recruits out there and there’s good talent in place to compete at a high level next year. Whoever steps in as the new coach has big shoes to fill but has a great opportunity.”
No matter which candidate BYU decides to hire, Hansen hope the school will find someone that can build on Rose’s success over the past 14 years.13 comments on this story
“I have a never-satisfied personality. I think many fans have the same. If you’re a 7, you try to go for an 8. If you’re an 8, you try to go for 10," he said. “If you go from a 1-25 record to a couple of conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances and then go to 13 20-win seasons and a Sweet 16 appearance, you say, let’s go for an average of 25 wins and let’s get to the Elite Eight and Final Four. I would push everything. Can we get the alumni more involved? Can we recruit more internationally? Can we get more trophies? I’d look at every gamut. Let’s be better at everything. It’s good to have hope and vision and plans and try to get better.”