Excitement is building within Cougar Nation as the new BYU basketball coaching staff is beginning to take hold of the program. With Coach Mark Pope's assistants already on board and word of new transfers coming into the program, there is a tangible feeling of confidence among the Cougar faithful.
The departure of longtime coach Dave Rose and his staff has brought back a flood of memories. It has rekindled a desire for program success similar to the Jimmer Fredette era, when the Cougars went head-to-head with highly ranked San Diego State and the Aztecs' star player Kawhi Leonard, who is currently lighting it up for the NBA's Toronto Raptors.
There are several avenues the new coaching staff can take in order to achieve success.
Interestingly enough, the first avenue to review is patience — not fan patience, because many fans are fickle and can jump off the fan train and onto the critic train very quickly. An example of patience took place many years ago, when a bright young college coach started out with two great seasons and then a number of good years, but not the great ones that Cougar supporters hoped for.
That coach was none other than the legendary Stan Watts, whose 1950 team was selected to go to the NCAA Elite Eight, only to lose to Baylor on a last-second shot. Although star Joe Nelson graduated, two other Cougar greats headed the 1951 National Invitation Tournament championship team. Mel Hutchins and Roland Minson had their jerseys retired. Their performance enthralled the crowd in New York's Madison Square Garden as the team steamrolled to decisive victories. Those games are etched in Cougars history.
The patience was on the part of the BYU administration, which allowed time for Watts and his staff to build a solid reputation as as good basketball program. When I arrived on the BYU campus in the fall of 1958, the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse fan capacity was around 10,000, which in those days was huge for college basketball. The games were exciting and the place was packed, but it was a few years before the return to glory unfolded.
The second avenue of success is putting together a group of high-level players that can compete at the national level. During a two-year period in the early to mid-'60s, Watts and his staff recruited 11 outstanding players to BYU, setting the stage for a renaissance period. Junior college transfer John Fairchild and sharpshooter Dick Nemelka headed the group, and virtually every one of those 11 players contributed significantly to the program. Center Craig Raymond and his teammate Jim Eakins, who came to BYU one year later, both excelled at the post position for the Cougars, as Watts had the luxury of two 6-foot-11 players who went on to ABA/NBA careers.
The 1965 team hosted the NCAA defending champion UCLA Bruins at the Fieldhouse in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, and even though the Cougars lost the game, the program was back in business. The next year the Cougars won the NIT for a second time, and after an amazing start to the 1965-66 year, BYU was ranked among the top five teams in the nation.
After a rough patch in the late '60s, including on-court demonstrations regarding BYU and racial issues, Watts and staff found a gold mine. Kresimir Cosic came with the highest credentials from Croatia to Provo to play for the Cougars as an established star — and he didn't disappoint. Not only were the Cougars successful during his stint with the team, with NCAA appearances in 1971 and 1972, but his personality and flair on his bony 6-11 frame made him a fan favorite. This is the third avenue for success. Have an epic player — maybe even a once-in-a-generation star — come to BYU.
Coach Frank Arnold came to BYU from UCLA and had tasted great success as an assistant coach to the legendary John Wooden. Arnold had been a key recruiter for the Bruins at the highest level, and now BYU would reap the benefits. Arnold took two of the suggested avenues. He had highly rated recruiting classes as well as getting a once-in-a-generation player from the state of Oregon, Danny Ainge. Along with future stars and pro players Devin Durrant, Fred Roberts and Greg Kite, Ainge and company had quite a three-year run. In 1979 and 1980 the Cougars competed in the NCAA playoffs after winning their conference, and in 1981 went to the Elite Eight in the NCAA playoffs. BYU led Virginia and its 7-4 center Ralph Sampson at halftime before losing the game and a chance to go to the Final Four.
Coach LaDell Andersen replaced Arnold in the mid-'80s and had a flirtation with greatness during the 1988 season. That team was led by 6-10 gunner Mike Smith, who had great range for a big man and had been recruited by Arnold as the No. 2 prospect in the country. Smith had a surrounding cast of quality players like Jeff Chatman, Marty Haws and Andy Toolson. That 1988 season resulted from a combination of avenues that augured future success. At one point in the season, BYU was ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Roger Reid followed Anderson with a 1990 team that had been predicted to be a middle-of-the-pack WAC squad. The team surprised everyone with a conference championship and a trip to the NCAAs, where they took highly touted Clemson down to the wire in the first round. This avenue was making the best with what you have. Reid took the Cougars to the NCAAs during his first four years and flirted with the highly touted recruiting class avenue, but it fizzled when Shawn Bradley played only one year and Ryan Cuff transferred after two years. Ken Roberts was the only one who had four outstanding years with the Cougars. That threesome on paper looked like Final Four material, but it was not to be.
Steve Cleveland and Dave Rose had some outstanding seasons with the Cougars — they had teams that were consistently in the postseason, and had some chronicled moments in Cougar lore. Cleveland had five straight years of postseason play and brought stars Travis Hansen and Lee Cummard to BYU. Rose had a run of six straight appearances in the NCAAs, including one of the most dynamic and exciting eras for Cougar basketball. With once-in-a-generation player Jimmer Fredette captivating the nation with his long-range bombs, along with other key players Jackson Emery, Charles Abouo, Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock, BYU and "Jimmermania" had taken the program to new heights.8 comments on this story
Cleveland and Rose were adept at dealing with the ebb and flow of recruiting, retaining and motivating. They used a fifth avenue — acquiring transfers — which has at times been a significant help to the program. Transfers Trent Whiting, Terrell Lyday, Hansen, Rafael Araujo, Mike Hall, Keena Young, Matt Carlino, Elijah Bryant and Chase Fischer all played major roles, much the same as Fairchild in the '60s and Bernie Fryer in the '70s, who played alongside Cosic.
The new coaching staff is off to a good start. Their new approaches should energize the fan base and keep the program on the right track. The future looks bright no matter which avenue or avenues they take — and I am in for the ride.