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Bob Dixon

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Middlesboro, KY 40965

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Go Big Blue!

JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Mark Pope Era Begins On High Note

Updated: Apr 18

Thanks to Eric Musselman, the University of Kentucky has a new basketball coach.


If the 59-year-old Musselman hadn’t left Arkansas where he coached the Razorbacks to two Elite Eight appearances as well as one Sweet Sixteen berth in five years, UK wouldn’t have a new boss.


But, as it turned out, Musselman departed the Razorback country and moved to Los Angeles where he officially was named the head coach at the University of Southern California on April 4, replacing Andy Enfield. Musselman has roots in Southern California during his early days. (Longtime Pac-12 members USC and crosstown rival UCLA will become full members of the Big Ten conference in August.)


New Kentucky coach Mark Pope (Photo by Jamie H. Vaught)

So Arkansas searched for a new coach and found one during the 2024 Final Four in Phoenix. His name was 65-year-old John Calipari, a Hall of Fame coach who left Kentucky because he basically was feeling no love from the Big Blue Nation.


On April 10, Coach Cal, who is currently the winningest active coach in men’s college basketball with six Final Four trips, was officially named the Razorbacks coach. He signed a five-year contract with the Fayetteville school with a salary beginning at $7 million per year. Don’t forget he is also scheduled to get a $1 million signing bonus on May 1. (For the 2023-24 season, his UK salary was a reported $8.5 million.) 


So Kentucky began its coaching search and faced some struggles. But UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart found a promising candidate from a large private university in Provo, Utah.


As you know, the new boss at UK is 51-year-old Mark Pope, a member of the school’s 1996 national championship team. He has nine years of head coaching experience with stops at Brigham Young and Utah Valley with a 187-108 career record. His squads won 20 or more games in six of the last seven seasons and he has made six postseason appearances.


Three of his five BYU teams finished the season ranked in the top 20 of the Ken Pomeroy efficiency ratings.


The 6-foot-10 Pope graduated from UK with a degree in English before finishing two years of medical school at prestigious Columbia University in New York City. He later played six years in the NBA.


With Pope, UK did the opposite of what the powerhouse rivals North Carolina and Duke did in recent years. Kentucky hired an experienced coach while UNC and Duke got long-time assistants with no head coaching experience. Hubert Davis at North Carolina. Jon Scheyer at Duke.


However, all three “blue blood” schools have at least one thing in common as their coaches also played college basketball for their current employer.

 

Initially, the Pope hiring didn’t go very well with the rabid Big Blue Nation. They wanted a big-name coach to take over the storied program. Someone like Dan Hurley, Scott Drew, and Billy Donovan. But things didn’t work out for these high-profile coaches.


Anyhow, for me, I was pleased to see Pope return to Kentucky. Not long before he was officially hired, I wrote a message on social media, commenting, “If the hiring of Mark Pope is true, then UK has made a pretty good move. Not perfect nor a home run but nice. My opinion.”  And that was written before ex-UK boss and current St. John’s coach Rick Pitino posted a surprising video on social media, strongly endorsing Pope as the new coach at Kentucky.


Now, I have to be honest. I’m kind of biased toward Pope. The new coach and I have had some connections in the past. We knew each other way back. During the late 1990s, I interviewed him at the Wildcat Lodge for a chapter in my third UK book, Cats Up Close. It was a very pleasant interview, and we had a good time. Years later, we exchanged numerous emails for my columns about him while he was studying at the medical school and then coaching at various places. He was extremely cooperative and I’m thankful for that. He is a very likeable man.


After a very wild Sunday celebration with Pope’s introductory press conference at packed Rupp Arena, I now would describe the hiring as a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning when everybody is happy, jumping up and down.


And the Big Blue Nation is now on board with Pope, excited about UK’s future with less emphasis on NBA.


“I'm someone that loves Kentucky from the depths of my soul, loves the game from the depths of my soul, loves my family and am a believer and loves God from the depths of my soul,” said Pope at the introductory press conference. “That is who I am.”

 

On his first season at Kentucky, Pope said he has high expectations. 


“I would try to temper expectations, but that is not happening, you are not allowing that. So why try?” said Pope, who once was UK’s representative for prestigious Rhodes Scholar honors. “We are trying to win and our goal is to win every game we play. That is what we are shooting for, trying to win. When we lose a game, if that happens, we will pick ourselves up and reassemble and be resilient and relentless and try to win the next one. That is the DNA at Kentucky. If Kentuckians know one thing, they know a hard day's work, and getting up the next day and having another hard day's work. That is what we know here.”


For that comment, Pope received a very nice cheer from the Rupp Arena crowd.

 

Asked how he will continue the greatest tradition in college basketball, Pope said, “We are going to work. That is what we do. That is the answer. We will work hard – (be) smart and (work) together and figure it out.”


Nevertheless, it was a very memorable Sunday for the Bluegrass State with the SEC Network televising the festive event.


Personally, this press conference is one of the highlights of my long sportswriting career. I was flabbergasted about the whole atmosphere. Wow! What can I say?  As a long-time credentialed sports journalist, I’m thankful for the opportunity to cover the Pope event.


Wrote retired Lexington Herald-Leader sports editor Gene Abell on his X (formerly Twitter) account, “It’s ok to be super hyped and excited for the Mark Pope hire and still be appreciative of a fantastic run at UK by John Calipari. You can be happy about both.”

 

I agree. I also wish Calipari well at Arkansas.


In conclusion, don’t forget to thank the former Razorback boss. Without him, we wouldn’t have Mark Pope and Sunday’s celebration to remember by.


And we can hardly wait to see Pope’s Wildcats tip off their first season in November. The 2024-25 campaign should be fun and interesting to watch.


The Big Blue Nation is sure rocking with excitement these days.


Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of six books about UK basketball, including recently-published “Forever Crazy About The Cats: An Improbable Journey of a Kentucky Sportswriter Overcoming Adversity.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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