Utah Tech University head basketball coach Jon Judkins — a returned missionary and lifelong Latter-day Saint — holds the Utah state record for the most career wins for a college basketball coach. (Photo by Stan Plewe/Utah Tech Athletics)
Talking hoops with Jon Judkins: returned missionary, proud granddad — and the winningest college basketball coach in Utah history
Veteran Utah Tech University basketball coach attributes his success and longevity to his players, staff and love for the game
By Jason Swensen
3 Feb 2023
Utah’s college basketball history is rich with highly successful coaches — from the University of Utah’s Rick Majerus and Vadal Peterson to Brigham Young University’s Stan Watts and Dave Rose.
And don’t forget Utah State’s Stew Morrill and, on the women’s side, Utah’s Elaine Elliott and BYU’s Jeff Judkins.
But no one who has coached college hoops in the Beehive State has won as many games as Utah Tech’s Jon Judkins, a returned missionary who recently earned his 600th career victory (600-302).
Last season, Judkins became the winningest college basketball coach in state history, surpassing Elliott with career win no. 583 when the Trailblazers defeated SAGU-American Indian College.
The veteran coach has worked in the high-pressure world of college basketball long enough to appreciate the significance of such milestones. But Judkins admits he has not allowed himself much time for celebration and reflection. There’s always another game to prepare for. Another would-be Trailblazer to scout and recruit.
“But I’m sure that when I’m done coaching I’m going to look back and realize, ‘Wow, we won a lot of games,” Judkins told Church Ball Magazine.
Humbly, the coach uses pronouns such as “we” and “ours” when referencing his success.
“Because it’s not just me,” he said, “it’s my staff and the players that I’ve had. It has all been a fun ride — but to be honest, I’m always focusing on the next game that we have to play.”
A hardwood life
Judkins hails from Utah basketball royalty. Both his older brother, Jeff Judkins, and his cousin, Danny Vranes, starred at the University of Utah before playing in the NBA. Jeff would later coach the BYU women’s team for over two decades.
After graduating from Utah’s Highland High School, Jon Judkins served in the Ohio Columbus Mission and played a year at Dixie State before transferring to Utah State, where he became the first Aggie to post a triple-double. During the 1987-88 season, he was part of the USU squad that claimed a conference title, earning a spot in the 1988 NCAA Tournament.
Immediately after finishing his own playing career, Judkins was hired as an assistant coach at Snow College, a junior college in Ephraim, Utah. A few years later, he became the Badgers’ head coach — and claimed his first coaching victory on the eventual march to 600 wins.
“When we won that first game, the guys on the team signed the game ball and gave it to me,” he said. “I don't remember too much about the actual game, but I do remember how the players reacted and their excitement.”
His most recent roster of players reacted in similar fashion with win no. 600.
“I walked into the locker room and the guys were celebrating and spraying me with water,” he said. “It felt like I had won my first game all over again. It’s a lot of fun and I love what I do.”
Utah Tech head basketball coach Jon Judkins, far right, mans the Trailblazers sidelines during a recent game at the Burns Arena in St. George, Utah. (Photo by Stan Plewe/Utah Tech Athletics)
The life of an American college basketball coach is often transient. Jobs can take a coach from one coast to the other — and then back again. Judkins is grateful that he has been able to coach college basketball for 35 years without ever moving outside his home state. After coaching at Snow College for 12 full seasons (posting a 284-128 record), Judkins moved to St. George in 2005 to assume the head coaching job at then-Dixie State.
Coaching college basketball has undergone dramatic changes since Judkins’ first job at Snow when terms such as “transfer portal” and “NIL” (name, image and likeness) were yet to be coined. Now they are part of the daily conversation at any program — including Utah Tech.
“These last couple of years have been harder; I’ve probably lost more hair and gotten more gray because of some of the new NCAA rules. There are some really good rules. But for coaches, it's been really hard.”
With college basketball players frequently coming and going via the transfer portal, Judkins said he now recruits players to come to Utah Tech — and then re-recruits them to stay on the team.
Given the demands of coaching college basketball in 2023, it is little surprise many burnout and leave the game. So what’s the secret to Judkins’ coaching longevity?
“I just love to coach,” he said. “I love teaching the game, coming to practice and getting better every day.”
Treating everyone like family
During his decades-long career, Judkins has recruited and coached young men of all backgrounds. Many have been fellow Latter-day Saints. Many have not.
No matter, said the coach.
“I treat my team a lot like my family. …I expect the players to do the right things, to stay out of trouble and to choose the right.
“And I want to be there for them and help them and support them. That’s part of our religion and what we try to do [as Latter-day Saints]. We are here to help and to teach and to be the best examples that we can be.”
Judkins knows he will eventually retire from coaching college basketball — but he relishes his permanent “jobs” of husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife, Lanette, are the parents of four athletic children — including a son, Justin, who is currently serving a mission. The Judkins are also grandparents to two little ones.
“The grandkids are where it’s at,” said the coach, laughing. “They are a lot of fun — and when they start acting up, you can tell them it’s time to go home.”