Mike Hopkins seems like he’d be a fun person to play for.
From the outside looking in, the University of Washington men’s basketball coach appears to be one big bundle of energy and positivity. During games he can be found hopping along the sidelines like a kid on a pogo stick. Then after games he’ll often crack an amusing comment about it when talking to the press.
His methods are working. He took over a team that went 2-16 in the Pac-12 two seasons ago and, with largely the same personnel, was the runaway conference champion this year. He’s won the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award both his seasons at Washington. His Huskies are the favorites to win the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament when it begins Wednesday in Las Vegas.
All of which got me thinking: Is the actual Mike Hopkins the same as the individual we see publicly? Who better to ask than someone who played for him?
Jackson High School graduate Dan Kingma played the previous four seasons for the Huskies. He spent his first year as a walk-on before being granted a scholarship by former Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, and that carried over to his senior year under Hopkins.
Kingma, who’s now a financial advisor in Bellevue, assisted with KRKO’s radio broadcasts at the high school state basketball tournaments in Tacoma. That afforded me the opportunity to ask him about Hopkins and what he’s really like.
“He’s a real dude,” was Kingma’s snap answer. “He’s not fake.
“Yeah, coach Hopkins is super passionate, super intense,” Kingma added. “You see the bundle of energy and that’s truly himself. He’s not faking that. He’s a great guy to be around and his energy is infectious.”
Kingma was part of the group of players that had to decide whether to stick around when Romar was dismissed following the 2016-17 season after 15 years at the helm. Kingma acknowledged that he had to take some time to decide if sticking it out for a senior season under a new coach was worth it, particularly for a bit player. His first interaction with Hopkins helped inform his decision to stay.
“My first experience was when we went in for a team meeting right after spring break,” Kingma recalled. “It was the first time I met him. He walked around the room and talked to us as a team, and you saw in his eyes in the way he was staring into us, and this intensity came over him. It made me sit back in my chair, get upright and think, ‘This is for real. This guy is the new sheriff in town.’ I don’t even know how to describe it, but his energy was very apparent.”
Hopkins, a longtime assistant coach at Syracuse, was thought to be the heir apparent to the legendary Jim Boeheim with the Orange. So it came as a surprise when he accepted the Washington job in 2017. Though it was Hopkins’ first time as a head coach, Kingma said it didn’t show.
“It’s very surprising when you think about that being his first head coaching job,” Kingma said. “You could tell he’d been around an elite program for a long time and seen how a successful program is run. You could tell he’d been observing and taking notes, and he was ready for the job from day one. There was no hesitancy, no lack of authority, he was ready to go.”
Hopkins brought a different style from his predecessor, most notably by installing the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense that’s turned Washington from a run-and-gun team under Romar into a more deliberate unit under Hopkins. Kingma said there were differences in coaching styles, too.
“Practices were very efficient (under Hopkins),” Kingma said. “They weren’t as long as what I was used to in college. They’re very efficient, you do it right or you do it again, they were very intense. We got in and out before it was drawn out too far. But you had to be 100 percent mentally there and physically there or you were most likely going to get embarrassed by someone in the gym. It was not hard to tell during practice who was there mentally and who wasn’t.”
Hopkins’ intensity means it isn’t always easy playing for him. But it also makes the rewards more worthwhile.
“My favorite personal moments were the moments around senior night last year,” Kingma said. “I love coach Hop and we have a great relationship, but he was never easy on me. He knew from the start he could get on me a little bit, and he probably didn’t go out of his way to give me too many compliments. I knew it was all in the right spirit, but when it was late in the season and he started to open up to me and Greg (Bowman) about how much we meant to him as seniors and how much we meant to the program, and how he wanted us to start on senior night and that we were truly important to the team, I’ll always remember those conversations. They meant a lot to me.
“He really cares about all the players personally,” Kingma added. “He’s not going to baby anybody, he’s very straight up man-to-man. But coach Hopkins really cares. Every one of the players, when I was there, trusted that he knows what he’s talking about, that he was doing what was best for the team, and he was doing his best to implement it. He does a good job conveying that message and building that trust.”
So take it from someone who knows. When you see Hopkins getting excited on the sidelines during one of the games at the Pac-12 tournament, that’s no show he’s putting on for the cameras. As Kingma said, that’s the real dude.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.