PROVO — While starring for the Taylorsville High baseball team in the mid-1980s, Mike Littlewood had his sights set on playing for the University of Utah.
Littlewood had a good scholarship waiting for him there and he hadn’t drawn attention from BYU's coaches.
Then he attended a BYU-Utah baseball game at Derks Field in Salt Lake City (the current location of Smith's Ballpark). The Cougars' roster featured players like future Major Leaguers Cory Snyder, Wally Joyner and Rick Aguilera.
“When I saw those guys play,” Littlewood remembered, “I knew that’s where I wanted to play. There was something about the way they carried themselves.”
Eventually, then-BYU coach Gary Pullins made him an offer.
“It wasn’t as good a scholarship as Utah but I made the decision that that’s what I wanted to do,” Littlewood said. “It was a great decision in my life.”
At BYU, Littlewood became a two-time All-Western Athletic Conference third baseman in 1987 and 1988 and helped the Cougars capture two league titles. He finished with a career .369 average, recording 220 runs, 235 hits, 45 doubles, two triples, 34 home runs, 168 RBI, a .606 slugging percentage and a .902 fielding percentage.
After concluding his BYU career, Littlewood was chosen in the 27th round of the 1988 Major League Baseball draft and he spent a season in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
Now, Littlewood is back at BYU.
In his seventh season as head coach, he’s guided the Cougars to a 33-14 record and a No. 24 ranking by Baseball America. BYU is on the cusp of capturing its first outright West Coast Conference regular-season baseball title.
Before returning to Provo in 2012, Littlewood coached for 16 seasons at Dixie State, where he compiled a record of 563-238 and won the National Junior College World Series in 2004.
Yet Littlewood’s perspective is different from most coaches because during that same 16-year span, he was one of the top college basketball officials in the country, working 70 games a year, mostly in the Big 12 and on the West Coast.
“I loved it. It’s a good profession,” Littlewood said of his officiating career. “It’s more than an avocation or a hobby. It’s a profession at that level. It was a big part of my life.”
Littlewood happened to officiate former BYU basketball coach Dave Rose’s first head coaching victory against Washington State in Spokane in 2005.
In 2018, Littlewood was inducted into the Utah Officials Hall of Honor for his contributions to sports officiating.
Littlewood started reffing high school basketball games in Utah after his one-year minor league baseball stint and worked his way up. He eventually officiated three NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 games and two Elite Eight contests.
“My first Sweet 16 was Florida-Butler. It was on CBS. The lights seemed brighter. I honestly didn’t know if I could blow my whistle,” Littlewood said. “I don’t know if I was hyperventilating. I was trying to act calm. Early in the game, (Florida star) Joakim Noah put an elbow in somebody’s throat for an offensive foul and it was, ‘OK, I can do this.’ I guess that’s why I loved it. It was one of those feelings I’ll never forget.
“In the NCAA Tournament, if you make a mistake, it’s on seven different networks and it’s on Twitter two seconds later,” he continued. “The accountability and pressure is much greater in certain games.”
Of course, not all of his experiences wearing a striped shirt and whistle were positive.
Littlewood was officiating an Oregon-Washington State game in Pullman, Washington, when WSU hit a shot with .3 left on the clock to give the Cougars the lead, prompting both benches to spill onto the court. Littlewood was the crew chief and one of his partners called a technical foul. The visiting Ducks made both free throws to force overtime, then ended up winning the game thanks, in part, to that controversial call.
As crew chief, Littlewood had to answer questions from the media afterward.
“It was a learning experience for me,” he said. “It made me realize you can’t take one second off in anything you do. I worked only one (NCAA) tournament game that year. I had worked the Elite Eight the previous year. In hindsight, I would have cleared the court in that situation instead of allowing the technical foul. Now there’s a rule that says that.”
When Littlewood accepted the BYU coaching job in 2012, he gave up basketball officiating. “Financially, it was sixes,” Littlewood said.
The final game he reffed was a Sweet 16 showdown between Michigan State and Louisville. A ball commemorating that game sits on a table in Littlewood’s BYU baseball office, encased in glass. BYU basketball coach Mark Pope arranged for then-Louisville coach Rick Pitino to sign the ball, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo signed it, too.
At the time he was hired at BYU, Littlewood had a good shot at working the Final Four the next year. He had already been assigned to work the Maui Invitational for the second time.
“Then this job opened up. There were some deep conversations,” Littlewood said. “I loved officiating. I called (Mountain West coordinator of basketball officials) Bobby Dibler, who’s been like a second father to me. He kind of swayed me toward this job.”
Who knows? Had Littlewood remained in officiating he might have moved up to the NBA. Littlewood had been participating in the NBA Referee Training Camp for three years and the D-League was the next step. Littlewood had to break the news to Joe Borgia, currently the NBA’s senior vice president of replay and referee operations, that he was quitting officiating to focus on coaching.
“You’re the first official that’s turned us down,” Borgia told him.
These days, Littlewood still follows college basketball but he doesn’t watch games the same way most people do.
“When I turn on a college game, I just watch the refs,” he said. “I still have a good relationship with a lot of them. When I came here, it was tough at first. People ask me if I miss it and I usually say no. This job takes so much of my time and energy. I always get butterflies with two things — before reffing and before games. I don’t get nervous about anything but before basketball games and coaching.”
Littlewood’s experience as a basketball official impacts the way he deals with umpires.
“One hundred percent it does,” he said. “I know what they’re going through. I don’t really chirp at umpires. If they’re trying their best, I leave them alone. If they’re just bad, they need to know about it because I know what the expectations are in officiating. I’m more mellow than I used to be. I used to expect perfection out of them. But I know that’s not possible.”
The attention to detail and demand for accountability in both his officiating and coaching styles were developed at a young age.
“I grew up painting with my dad. He was a firefighter and a painter. I thought, ‘I’m going to paint this wall, I’m going to do the best I can. If this is my house, or if it’s someone else’s house, I’ll do it the same way,'” he said. “I’ve taken that approach with everything I do — doing the best you possibly can. It helped me in officiating, not taking a night off and being consistent. The coaches appreciate that.”
The pillar of his coaching philosophy is holding both himself and his players accountable.
“I’ve seen so many people want to blame others for what’s happened to them,” Littlewood said. “But if you come out every day and put in your work and do it the right way, you can look yourself in the mirror and say that you’ve given everything you can today, you’re more comfortable with yourself.”
After Littlewood led BYU to an NCAA regional in 2017 for the first time in 15 years, the Cougars took a major step backward last year, posting a 22-28 record. Toward the end of the regular season, Littlewood realized “something wasn’t right” in the program.
During the offseason, Littlewood overhauled his roster, with nine players leaving for a variety of reasons.
“People think I let nine guys go because they were bad culture guys. That’s not true. Some guys couldn’t compete at this level and it was better for them to go somewhere else. There were a couple of selfish guys that left. There were a couple of married guys that wanted to move on. They didn’t come every day with the intent of getting better every day.
“I feel like I’m pretty good at getting the feel of the pulse of the team of who really wants to be here. It’s not me that will push them out; it’s the culture of the team that pushes them out.”
This season, BYU is thriving again thanks to its consistency on the mound and at the plate. In less than two weeks, the Cougars will be competing in the WCC Tournament for the chance to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s about being a good teammate and being totally accountable. We saw last year that when that breaks down, it breaks down your entire program,” Littlewood said. “What’s special about this team and the team two years ago that went to the regional is every guy had everyone’s back. The guys on the bench were cheering for the guys in spots they wanted to play.”12 comments on this story
Senior outfielder Brock Hale has embraced Littlewood’s approach to the game.
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned from coach Littlewood is just the mentality to win,” Hale said. “Basically, every year but last year, we’ve been a winning team. He’s been able to push the culture of winning and teaching us how to win. You can see it when we go out on the field. We know how to win.”
Cougars, Utes on the air
No. 24 BYU (33-14) at Utah (12-31)
- Tuesday, 6 p.m. MDT
- Smith’s Ballpark
- TV: Pac-12 Network
- Radio: ESPN 960