Wave of the future: Hopkins spends his career perfecting coaching model as he prepares to take helm at Syracuse
All Mike Hopkins could do was watch the developments of the O.J. Simpson trial.
After his playing career came to an end, Hopkins was still trying to figure out what he would do next. So while he decided, he sat in his California home and watched the trial along with the rest of America. The lull in his basketball career wouldn’t last long. The former Syracuse shooting guard found his way into coaching and, in 1995, made his return to SU to join Jim Boeheim’s coaching staff.
Hopkins has never left and is now Boeheim’s successor.
“Coaching kind of gave me life and the kids gave me life,” Hopkins said. “And Coach Boeheim gave me life.”
Hopkins played at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., where he helped lead the team to a state championship in 1987. At Syracuse, he was the Orange’s starting shooting guard for two seasons. When he left, his playing career didn’t last much longer.
Hopkins said he was “fired from playing.” A brief professional career in the Continental Basketball Association with the Rochester (Minn.) Renegades and then in Turkey and Holland was the end of his playing days. Hopkins said he had to come to grips with it.
He returned to his native California where he planned on working for his father’s company, which made absorbency products for hospitals. But those plans ended quickly. His father’s business had a down year, and he had to fire six of his salespeople. He didn’t feel that it would be right to then hire his son.
“I’m fired, my career’s over, I probably had to have knee surgery and it’s so bad, my dad can’t even hire me,” Hopkins said.
So Hopkins watched the O.J. Simpson trial unfold while he waited for his next career move. Soon enough, Hopkins received a call from Marv Marinovich, the father of Hopkins’ friend, Todd. Marinovich trained kids from around Los Angeles and said he needed a basketball coach.
Hopkins started giving individual lessons to a pool of about 30 kids. Shortly after, he started working as an Amateur Athletic Union coach. From that point on, Hopkins the player became Hopkins the coach. It’s exactly where he felt he was meant to be. He said he loved it then, and now as Boeheim’s top assistant at Syracuse, he continues to relish his job.
“I never thought I’d get into coaching, and then when I did it, I loved it,” Hopkins said. “I’m 43 years old, I’m losing my hair, I don’t have a tan anymore, I’m having a hard time getting at the rim, but I don’t feel like I have a job.”
Seventeen years after joining the Syracuse coaching staff, Hopkins is still able to relate to his players.
Hopkins listens to Pearl Jam or Eminem when he needs to be hyped up. He brings all the energy the Orange needs to feed off during practice to make the most of the two hours. And perhaps most importantly, he knows how to teach the game of basketball in a way every one of his players can understand.
“He does a great job of that,” said SU assistant coach Adrian Autry, who also played with Hopkins at Syracuse. “He’s very good at describing things, painting pictures and being visual. I think a lot of times, a lot of these kids, they’re visual learners.”
Where Hopkins’ true skill lies, though, is in his ability to connect with his players. It’s something he’s perfected. Hopkins is more than a coach for many of them. His role transcends the basketball court as he has become a mentor or father figure.
“I think the biggest thing is when you really get to know somebody, you have a better chance of coaching them,” Hopkins said. “I think it’s the best way to do it. It’s my style and it’s something I pride myself in.”
Former Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine said Hopkins’ intensity never fades, even when he’s sick. Jardine said he remembers one practice when Hopkins was visibly sick, but insisted on running drills with the players. He tried to work through his illness, continuing to yell and maintain his high level of intensity.
As the team ran through a drill, former Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn hit Hopkins in the chest with his shoulder. Hopkins quickly turned and bolted to a trash can near the side of the gym and vomited. As soon as he finished throwing up, he took his spot in the drill and continued to coach.
Boeheim couldn’t get him to go home. No one could.
“That was one of the biggest things he taught us that year,” Jardine said. “No matter how you feel, you’ve always got to bring it.”
Former Orange guard Jason Hart first met Hopkins when he was playing AAU basketball out in California. When he arrived at Syracuse, Hopkins had only been on the coaching staff for one season. Even then, though, Hopkins understood the importance of getting to know his players. He built up a relationship and earned their trust, especially Hart.
“I think the biggest thing is when you really get to know somebody, you have a better chance of coaching them. I think it’s the best way to do it. It’s my style and it’s something I pride myself in.”
Mike Hopkins, SU assistant coach
When Hart made the nearly 3,000-mile trip from Los Angeles to Syracuse, he found himself in a new world. He was playing for a team that drew thousands of fans and captured the attention of an entire city. The spotlight was always on the Orange. Hart had never experienced anything like it.
“Since Syracuse is the only ticket in town, you have to do things a little differently,” Hart said. “You have to almost become a pro. He taught me how to deal with the media, instead of running, dealing with them and speaking after a good or bad game. Those are the things I had no idea of doing.”
Hart said Hopkins’ attitude, personality and genuine interest in the players’ lives were consistent. Whenever Hart needed help with something, basketball-related or not, he knew he could go to Hopkins. And he spent hours with Hopkins and his wife, Tricia.
“I think I was more like his little brother or son,” Hart said. “It was more like my comfort zone, being away from California, he was another guy I could relate to. Obviously as my coach, he was more of a friend and a mentor.”
Now as an assistant coach at Pepperdine, Hart said he’s trying to follow Hopkins’ coaching model.
When Hart received the Vic Hanson Medal of Excellence in 2011, he referred to Hopkins as his “white angel” in his acceptance speech. Hart said he saw Hopkins tear up.
After everything he had been through, Hopkins was always there for him. From an 18-year-old kid from South Central Los Angeles to a married father of two children, Hart said Hopkins helped him develop into who he is today.
Hart showed Hopkins his appreciation.
“It was me coming back and giving a speech, and me appreciating what he did for me during those four years I was in school on and off the basketball court,” Hart said.
Jardine shared similar sentiments about Hopkins. He was a father figure and a role model.
In his phone, Jardine has Hopkins listed as “White Dad” in his contacts.
“He’s a guy that anytime I need a shoulder to lean on, somebody to talk to and who’s always going to listen to me, give advice, Hop is always the guy to call,” Jardine said. “He’s always been big in my life. Probably one of the biggest influences in my life.”
Jardine said the most important lesson he learned from Hopkins was to treat everyone with respect. On the court, Jardine said he also learned to work as hard as possible and stay motivated at all times.
Syracuse guard Brandon Triche said Hopkins’ energy at practice is infectious. It forces the players to work as hard as they can. His enthusiasm challenges them to keep up.
“He brings energy to practice every day and I don’t know when he sleeps, if he sleeps,” Triche said. “I don’t know how he does it.”
Soon, Hopkins will likely do it as head coach.
Hopkins’ contract was reportedly reworked in 2009 to guarantee he takes over for Boeheim when he retires. And in the wake of the Bernie Fine sexual abuse scandal, Boeheim acknowledged during a press conference that Hopkins will “win” as head coach of the Orange when he takes over.
“Roy Danforth won here, Fred Lewis won here, the guy next, Mike Hopkins, will win here as well,” Boeheim said.
Hopkins’ name was brought up when the Charlotte head coaching position opened up in 2010. But Hopkins opted to stay at Syracuse. Hart said it shows his loyalty to the program and to Boeheim.
At some point, the team will be his. The years of building relationships with players, perfecting his coaching methods and learning the best way to draw every ounce of energy from players will carry over to a head-coaching role.
Hopkins won’t be seeing another lull in his basketball career any time soon.
“We’ll see when his day comes, I think he’ll be ready,” Hart said. “I think he has his gift of coaching.”
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