FRESNO — At every Fresno State men’s basketball game that Mark Hutson goes to, someone new inevitably stops him to talk about his son. With Mark’s son, Justin, 17 games into his first season at the helm of the Bulldogs and first season as a college head coach, fans and community members have had time to make their own assessments and opinions.
“We just love your son,” Mark recalled of how the conversations usually go.
He’s not trying to brag. That’s just what happens each time.
“He’s been well received,” Mark said. “They’ve had some success and the kids work hard and play hard. Not much else you can ask for a coach to do.”
Justin Hutson has led the Bulldogs to a 13-4 record overall (4-1 Mountain West) in his debut year as a Division I head coach. The well-established and well-respected assistant who spent the last 12 years at San Diego State (10 seasons) and UNLV (two seasons) has returned to his roots in the Central Valley. Born and raised in life and basketball in Bakersfield, Hutson is relishing every game, every practice and every moment with the Bulldogs. And it seems Fresno State is embracing him, too.
“Blessed. I have a great group of guys that we coach everyday,” Hutson said. “They come to work everyday. They’re trying to work hard in the classroom. They’re great in the community. And we’ve been winning some games, so I’m excited to be here in Fresno.”
Hutson has repeatedly labeled being the head coach at Fresno State as his “dream job.” That’s more than just a cliche or empty words, according to Mark. Hutson wanted to be close to home. He thought about being the coach at Cal State Bakersfield — where he played (1992-1994) and was an assistant (1998-2000) — but Fresno State has always been CSUB’s “big brother,” Mark said.
Fresno State really was a program Hutson envisioned himself leading years before he was hired in April 2018 to take over for Rodney Terry, who left for UTEP. Hutson went into the interviews with the search committee making sure they didn’t even consider the idea of him during down the job if it was offered to him.
When Fresno State extended the offer, Hutson barely had to think about it.
“Yes, it’s been great,” Hutson said, regarding if being the head coach has lived up to being his dream job. “It’s not about the building or anything like that. It’s about the people and I’m very fortunate to work with a lot of great people. I love the Valley.”
One of the happiest people over Hutson’s move to Fresno State is Mark, who can now get from his house to home games in one hour, 40 minutes instead of four hours or more. Mark, a legendary coach himself, jokingly asked for an assistant coaching position with the caveat of needing Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays off, as well as a golf membership. Hutson didn’t take him up on it.
Then there’s the players, some of whom Hutson brought in but most of whom he inherited. Hutson can be known for being demanding of his players and hard on them. He spends most games with his hands stuck to his hips and he’s not shy about loudly letting players know about any misstep.
Hutson also makes a point of letting the players know that everything he does is because he cares about them and wants them to be successful.
“He is one of the greatest coaches I have ever played for," Fresno State senior guard and Mira Monte graduate Braxton Huggins said. "He's a great coach with his system and the way he communicates with the players. I wouldn't want to play for any other coach at this point. It's just the way he interacts with the guys, he's a real dude. There isn't one player that wouldn't want to play for him."
It’s all led to some positive results right away. The Bulldogs won six of their seven games during a month-long homestand. Hutson was one of four coaches in program history (out of 19) with at least 12 wins in his first 15 games. The Save Mart Center filled with a season-high 9,586 fans to watch Fresno State lose to then-No. 10 Nevada, 74-64, on Jan. 12.
The Bulldogs started 3-0 in Mountain West play for the first time ever and 3-0 in conference play for the first time since the 2010-11 season. Fresno State is predicted to finish second with a 14-4 in the Mountain West by advanced analytics website Kenpom.com, contending for a conference title and NCAA Tournament bid.
Fresno State is the third-highest MWC team in the NET rankings at 64. Utah State, which the Bulldogs beat on the road, is 41 and Nevada is 22.
Hutson isn’t one to evaluate a season before it’s over, though, aside from saying he likes his players. He’s focused in on each game, describing the challenges of being a first-time Division I head coach as “rebounding against Nevada,” several minutes after the contest concluded.
After Hutson’s first game this season, Mark asked, “How’d it feel?”
“Dad, being on the sideline didn’t feel any different,” Mark recalled his son replying. “It’s the other stuff.”
"It’s gonna be a test and it’s gonna be fun to see what he can do," Mark said. "He’s been successful. He’s been around the game all his life. So it’s gonna be a challenge, but I think he’s up for it."