How Mark Pope’s improbable career path led him back to his old Kentucky home

April 1, 1996

A young Jim Boeheim at Syracuse takes on a young Rick Pitino at Kentucky for the national championship game. Neither future coaching legend had won it all yet.

Kentucky has a comfortable lead for most of the game, until Syracuse brings it within two points with just under five minutes left in the game. Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 team, and it was time for them to show it.

In the middle of it all was a lanky, tall, pasty Mark Pope with hair; setting screens and working the middle of that famous Boeheim 2-3 zone. It wasn’t the greatest game of his career. He went just 1 of 6 from the field, scoring four points and notching more turnovers than rebounds in 27 minutes. You could tell he didn’t care though. His only concern was a national championship.

With just over a minute left Kentucky clings to a five point lead. The guards sell out for a steal in the backcourt, leaving Syracuse with an advantage in numbers. The Orangemen try to find their leading scorer John Wallace, but Pope anticipates the entry pass and pokes the ball away for the steal getting fouled in the process. Pope cans both free throws on the one-and-one to stretch the lead to seven in the final minute.

A few stops and clutch buckets later, Kentucky comfortably pulls out a nine point win for the title. It was the Wildcats’ sixth all-time, Pitino’s first, and Kentucky’s first since 1978.

Several shots of celebration show the Wildcat senior captain embracing teammates and coaches. Pitino is handed the trophy at center court and immediately hands it to Pope on his left, who in turn hoists it up with all his teammates to show the world they are champions.

April 12, 2024

A Friday morning press release confirms the reports from the night before. Mark Pope will be the new head coach of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. The news sets the college basketball world on fire. Mark Pope? The BYU head coach?

It was as a surprising move as it was sudden that materialized almost as soon as it was leaked, and to the dismay of Wildcat and Cougar fans alike, it’s official.

“Mark Pope not only brings an impressive record in nine years as a head coach, but also a love of the University of Kentucky and a complete understanding of what our program means to the people of our state,” said Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart in the news release.

Mark Pope? I, like the rest of college basketball fans and analysts, still can’t wrap my head around it. Let me tell you why.

March 6, 2023

BYU loses to Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament semifinals. Mark Pope’s team finishes 19-15, 7-9 in conference, and 5th in the WCC standings. Cougars fans hold out to see if they get invited to the NIT, but no invitation comes. BYU’s season is over.

It was BYU’s worst basketball season in nearly 20 years. It was also Pope’s second season in a row missing the NCAA tournament. Some can argue it was the worst season of his young coaching career. Others, including the media, were wondering if he was the coach BYU needed. Fans were frustrated with the mediocrity at this point, blunting some of the excitement about joining the Big 12 the next season.

All of this, the lowest point in Pope’s career, came a mere 403 days before being announced as Kentucky’s new head coach. Mark Pope? The guy that finished 5th in the WCC a year ago? Yep, that guy.

Pope was a beloved captain for that ’96 Championship Wildcat team. This move means he’ll be back in Lexington, which is a pretty good story in and of itself, but Pope’s story has always been crazier than that. If this thing at Kentucky works out for him, we’re going to see production companies lined out the door to get the rights to his story.

Pope grew up playing basketball in Bellevue, Washington. It came as no shock that the 6-10 power forward committed to the University of Washington. Pope was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 1992, but after a head coaching change he decided a change of scenery was best for the remainder of his college career. This landed him at Kentucky. You already know what happened there.

Drafted by the Pacers, Pope was coached by none other than Larry Bird. He played with the likes of Reggie Miller, Chris Mullen and Jalen Rose, before eventually being cut after just a couple years. He became a bit of an NBA journeyman, playing brief stints with multiple teams over the next five years.

During that time Pope realized that playing professional basketball wasn’t going to be his life’s career and started looking at alternate options. For a second he tried pursuing law school, but quickly decided to work on getting into medical school instead. The craziest part? Pope graduated with a degree in English from Kentucky. So, while bouncing around NBA rosters, Pope took the prerequisite classes he needed to apply to medical school. He got in, by the way.

When the NBA roster spots dried up Pope became a full-time medical student. After about three years he left medical school behind and drove down to Georgia to accept a job as director of basketball operations at the University of Georgia. Thus, his coaching career was born.

Pope’s climb up the coaching ladder was accelerated. After just five years as an assistant coach at multiple schools (including BYU), Pope was hired as the head coach of Utah Valley University. That was just nine years ago. In 2019 he was hired as head coach at BYU, led the Cougars into the Big 12, and left after five years to become the head coach at Kentucky.

The movie would write itself. I just hope they could convince Jason Segel to star in it.

Why are Kentucky fans so upset?

Mark Pope?

Okay look, I get it. If I were a Kentucky I would be upset too. The Wildcats are one of, if not the most, prestigious program in all of college basketball. The fact that the job was vacant at all is a once in a lifetime occurrence. As a few people put it, this is like Kalani Sitake landing the Alabama job.

Kentucky had a whole slew of options, and when you’ve won eight national championships, you tend to have your pick of the litter. Oats, Drew, Hurley—some of the best in the game were contacted and offered. They all said no. Even then, you would think Kentucky would go after someone who’s at least proven, even a little bit, that they can win the big games.

Of the many things to knock Pope for, the glaring one, is that he hasn’t won a single NCAA tournament game. Let that sink in. Kentucky just hired a guy that has only ever seen March Madness up close twice as a head coach, and lost both games as a six seed. On the bright side, losing to Dusquense and UCLA is better than St. Peter’s and Oakland.

Zero tournament wins, zero conference championships, zero five star recruits, zero NBA players produced. Mark Pope?

What to love about Mark Pope, and why BYU will miss him

There are a few statistics that shed some light on Pope as a coach and why Kentucky was justified in hiring him.

Here are Kentucky’s recruitment rankings the last five years according to 247Sports: 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 5th, 1st. The best recruiting over the last five years hands down. Now here is BYU’s: 112th, 80th, 149th, 54th, and no signees in 2023. Keep these numbers in mind as I walk you through some more statistics.

Over the past five years, BYU has finished with a higher KenPom ranking than Kentucky three times, including this last season where they each finished 18th and 23rd respectfully. This is also true for NET rankings.

Kentucky has one NCAA tournament win over the last five years to BYU’s zero.

Doing more with less.

The Cougars were picked to finished 13th in the Big 12 this season, and justifiably so. You all already know what happened. Against all odds and everyone’s expectations, Pope took a BYU team to the NCAA tournament, a 5th place finish in the Big 12, and wins over Iowa State, San Diego State, Baylor, and Kansas. One of the most efficient offenses in college basketball, the Cougars were able to take that 149th ranked signing class to places no one thought they could.

Pope’s recruiting might be his best trait. Now you may say, Wait a second, if he’s so good why are you trying to use his bad signing class rankings as a defense for him? Nothing gets past you.

It may or may not be well known that BYU might be the toughest place to recruit in the country. Sure there are a lot of things to love: passionate fan base, Big 12 school, strong history. The problem though is the Honor Code. Every single student, including the athletes, must adhere to a plethora of rules and regulations. These include, but are not limited too, “abstaining from sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman” and “abstain[ing] from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, vaping, marijuana, and other substance abuse.” Male athletes technically can’t even have beards or hair to their shoulders.

BYU is also very stingy with NIL funds and other recruitment methods. While there are talented athletes that are attracted to BYU and its culture, BYU operates in a much different way than most schools.

The truth is Pope was handcuffed at BYU when it came to recruiting, and that won’t be the case at Kentucky. The millions in available NIL money and Pope’s relentless charisma and attitude will work wonders on young recruits. Not to mention the name across the chest; the chance to play at the University of Kentucky. For the man who’s flown to Egypt, Mexico, and Madagascar for recruiting, it’ll be like untying his arms and restoring his sight.

Finally, Pope has always been a Wildcat. He has never been shy about his love for the program and his desire to coach there. This really is his wildest dream come true. He understands the expectations, the responsibility, and what it means to represent the university.

What’s next for BYU?

For Cougar fans, it’s all about who’s next. The search is fairly narrow but make no mistake about it, it will by no means be quick.

As Pope once put it, “Some might say that it’s harder to gain top-secret security clearance to the CIA than to become the BYU basketball coach.”

If I were to place a bet, I would put a significant amount on Chris Burgess being named the next head coach of BYU basketball. The Utah assistant coach has already spent time in the program, and is pretty much everything the university is looking for. His presence in recruiting for the state is unmatched, and he has a sharp basketball mind.

Whoever it is has some big shoes to fill within the program, while BYU fans mourn the loss of the loud, quirky, well-spoken coach they’ve known for 13 years.

Mark Pope? Yeah, Mark Pope.

Chase is the sports editor for the Daily Universe. Follow him on X: @chase_rogers0

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