We’ve all seen the cafeteria scene.
It’s a staple of just about every angst-ridden high school coming-of-age movie ever conceived. “Mean Girls.” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” “The Edge of Seventeen.” “Superbad.” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
You name it. They shot it.
As the scene goes, the protagonist-with-a-lot-of-heart-but-little-confidence — who, more often than not, just moved to the area — sidles apprehensively into the cafeteria on the first day of high school. There, before our protagonist’s anxious eyes, lies an overwhelming mass of post-pubescent humanity:
The jocks, the band kids, the choir kids, the theater kids, the chess club, the math club, the cool kids and castaways and cliques. In the movies, at least, they’re all segmented into specific tables — visual evidence of a high school’s fragile social ecosystem.
And our protagonist, bless his or her heart, doesn’t feel like they fit in. So they retreat to a bathroom stall, or an empty classroom, to swallow their tuna sandwich (and pride) in silence.
But though art imitates life, it isn’t always a perfect impression. In the first week of May in 2017, Mike Hopkins sat alone at a table inside the Arizona Biltmore resort in Tempe, the main character in his own uncomfortable cafeteria scene. Hopkins — who had just been hired as UW’s head basketball coach roughly a month and a half before — was there to attend the Pac-12’s annual spring meetings, along with the rest of the conference’s head football and basketball coaches and their respective athletic directors.
In other words, he was alone in a sea of strangers.
Until, of course, he was greeted by a familiar face.
“I’m a fish out of water, right? I’m walking in. I don’t know anybody,” Hopkins said in a phone interview this week. “You’re kind of like the new kid in school. You’re looking around for where to sit. So I got my breakfast and I go to this table and everybody’s looking at me like I’m an alien. I’m sitting there by myself.
“Next thing you know, it’s his awareness. Coach Pete (Chris Petersen) was at a different table. He walked over, sat next to me, made me feel comfortable. He’s a guy who was aware of, here’s a fish out of water, sitting over to the side, flopping around, trying to gasp for air. He recognized it and came over. He cares.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Petersen — UW’s sixth-year head football coach — cared enough to invite Hopkins to sit in on the Huskies’ meetings, and to attend a coaching clinic where he essentially shadowed Petersen throughout much of a day. On a different occasion, Hopkins asked Petersen to sit for an hour and outline his recruiting strategy.
Hopkins made it to that table in the Arizona Biltmore, after all, by taking “a little bit from a lot of people that I consider the best.”
And not just basketball coaches.
“I’ve just learned a lot (from Petersen),” Hopkins said. “I had a couple situations with player personnel, dealing with certain issues, and he was a guy who I could call and say, ‘Coach, what do you think about this? How would you handle it?’ He’s got so much experience that it was just invaluable. When you’ve got a coach like that who’s so willing to help, it meant the world to me.”
That isn’t to say that Hopkins, 49, was a wide-eyed rookie in the coaching world. Prior to being hired at UW, the Laguna Hills, Calif., product spent 22 seasons at Syracuse — his alma mater — as an assistant under Jim Boeheim. In 2015 he was officially named head coach designate, set to assume Boeheim’s role once the legendary Orange coach retired. Hopkins served stints with Team USA in 2012, 2014 and 2016 as well.
So, no, Hopkins was far from a coaching newcomer. But in all those years on the baseline, he had yet to assume the leading role.
“I know what it’s like to be a brand-new head coach,” Petersen told The Times on Thursday. “There’s just so many things that now you really have to make decisions on. He knows basketball; that’s obvious. When I became the head coach all I wanted to do was talk about football and look at football film.
“It became very apparent that there’s just so many other things that you’re truly responsible for, that you need to figure out and get your systems in place for. So anything that he could glean from us that could help him, we were all about it.”
In the two seasons since, Hopkins has been named back-to-back Pac-12 Coach of the Year, most recently leading the Huskies to a Pac-12 title and an NCAA tournament appearance last spring. In fact, Washington was the first football and basketball program to win the Pac-12 in the same academic year since Oregon accomplished the feat in 2001-02.
Petersen, likewise, has racked up a 47-21 record in five seasons at Washington, including three consecutive seasons with 10 wins or more. His .808 career winning percentage is best among all active coaches with at least three seasons of FBS experience.
Hopkins went as far as to say that “the great ones, like when I was around coach (Mike Krzyzewski) or coach Boeheim, they just have an incredible presence. You meet (Petersen), and he’s got that smile. It’s strength. It’s friendly. It’s everything. The great ones have a different type of glow.”
Regardless of glow, Hopkins and Petersen’s partnership has been — and will be — beneficial for both.
“It’s the state of constant improvement, 24/7 365 around here in this football office,” Petersen said. “We’ve been at this a long time, and that can never change. If you’re not trying to figure out a better way … it’s not like you’re necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel, but you’re constantly trying to keep up with the times and stay on the cutting edge and tweak and adjust and move forward.
“(Hopkins and I) are in the process of getting to sit down and talk. That’s one of my questions I asked him the other day. I said, ‘OK, two years in I really want to know what has hit you loud and clear between the eyes.’ We just haven’t had the chance to do that yet, but I’m excited for that.”
Someday soon, they’ll sit down — maybe over breakfast, like at the Arizona Biltmore — and a pair of California kids turned Husky head coaches will continue to care, collaborate and mutually improve.
“The one thing I always say to our players: it’s hard being new,” Petersen said. “I don’t really remember that (spring meetings story). But two things: 1.) I do want to make sure that our coaches here know that, hey, we’re all in this together, and I think we can all share information.
“2.) some of this stuff is just common sense and being good to people. Don’t make it too complicated. If a guy’s sitting there eating by himself, go over and make sure he’s doing good. How can you help him?”