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How Mark Pope Spearheaded a $3.6 Million Practice Facility at Utah Valley

Jacob Polacheckby:Jacob Polacheck04/22/24


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Before Mark Pope became the new head coach at Kentucky or even before he became the head coach at BYU, he was leading a small mid-major Division I program out of Orem, Utah. In just four years, Pope energized the program like no one else could.

When Pope first stepped on Utah Valley’s campus for his first head coaching gig in 2015, he had high aspirations. Utah Valley’s current athletic director Jared Sumsion, who was a member of the athletic department when Pope arrived, told KSR+ that only a few days after his arrival, Pope was already talking about the possibility of a brand-new practice facility.

“We just kind of looked at each other like, haha, that’s never going to happen. We need donors to make that happen,” Sumsion said. “Truthfully, the Nuvi Basketball Center would not have happened without Mark Pope.

Photo via Utah Valley Athletics

The Nuvi Basketball Center

Before Mark Pope came to Utah Valley, the thought of a new practice facility was highly unrealistic; however, once he arrived, Pope energized the university with new approaches toward donor engagement and fundraising.

“His fundraising prowess and ability to connect with people got that done,” Sumsion said. “Otherwise, it was just a pipe dream for the rest of us.”

Plans for the new Nuvi Basketball Center had already begun within “a few months” of Pope’s start as head coach. Within a year, Pope had a shovel in the ground to begin construction on a $3.6 million practice facility.

“When he first came in, he was in offices that were pretty sad for a D1 head coach,” Sumsion said. “He said, ‘Here’s the vision. If we do this, we’ll get recruits and we’ll get people.’ On the mid-major level, a lot of programs at that time didn’t have their own practice facilities. He had a vision to take us to the next level.”

The 14,678-square-foot Nuvi Basketball Center features a full-size basketball court, a strength and conditioning room, and a full suite of offices for both men’s and women’s coaches.

“Having a space to gather and to get people together was really important to him,” Sumsion said.

The Impact on Recruiting

When Mark Pope pitched the idea of a practice facility at Utah Valley, one of the key factors was its impact on recruiting. It was a key draw for many of Pope’s future players.

Before Baylee Steele was recruited to transfer to Utah Valley from Eastern Michigan ahead of the 2018-19 season, he hadn’t even heard of the school. They didn’t have a practice gym or facility when he first arrived to visit.

“[Coach Pope] was able to raise money to build a whole state-of-the-art practice facility with all the newest technology for the men’s basketball team,” Steele said. “It’s clear. He turned it around right away.”

Just a few years before that, Jordan Poydras, who played at Utah Valley during the 2016-17 season was being recruited just on the idea of a practice facility. Without anything tangible yet, the idea alone was compelling.

“If I’m looking back to my time, just the practice facility itself was something that was mentioned when I was first being recruited there,” Poydras said. “That’s a big reason kids are going to Utah Valley. It’s because of that practice facility.”

Photo via Utah Valley Athletics

‘He Brought People Together’

When it comes to donor engagement, Mark Pope is as good as they come, Sumsion said. That’s largely due to his energy and off-the-wall ideas.

“We weren’t there and he showed us that it’s possible to build a practice facility and to engage with donors in the way that he did,” Sumsion said.

Utah Valley and BYU are about four miles away from each other. So, when Pope left to take the head coaching job with the Cougars, Sumsion and the faculty at UVU were able to see the impact that Pope had on their neighbors.

“He really did bring people together,” Sumsion said. “If you’ve been in the room with him, he’ll win you over. You don’t go into a room with Mark Pope and leave that room without thinking he’s your best friend.

In Pope’s four years at Utah Valley, attendance increased every year. The team had some historic wins, including a 27-point comeback win over Denver, the largest in school history.

“It’s not just some of the historic wins,” Sumsion said. “One year, we had an 11-4 non-league record, which is very hard to do on the mid-major level. Just being somebody with a vision and somebody teaching us that we can be bigger than who we are. That’s something that I took away from our time with Mark Pope. He just showed us that we can win big games, we can build facilities, and we can put ourselves on the map.

Now that Mark Pope is at Kentucky, we could see history repeat itself, this time on a much larger scale, as excitement over a new era builds with fans and donors.

“And I think you’re going to see — it would not shock me if, within a few months, we hear about a practice facility, which probably would make Cal’s head explode, but it wouldn’t shock me,” KSR’s Matt Jones said last week. “I’m not saying that’s definitely gonna happen but it wouldn’t it wouldn’t shock me.”

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