Home Sports Is it a good fit? How hiring Mark Pope affects Kentucky, BYU

Is it a good fit? How hiring Mark Pope affects Kentucky, BYU

Is it a good fit? How hiring Mark Pope affects Kentucky, BYU


Last month, SMU shocked the college basketball world when it fired Rob Lanier following a 20-win season. The move opened the door for Andy Enfield to leave USC and fill that opening. Then, Eric Musselman left Arkansas to replace Enfield, and John Calipari signed a gigantic deal with the Razorbacks, which got us here, to the opening at Kentucky.

The initial rumblings suggested Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart would swing for the fences. And he did.

But UConn head coach Dan Hurley, fresh off his back-to-back NCAA title runs, said no after reportedly being offered a huge salary. Then, Scott Drew decided to stay in Waco at Baylor. It was unclear if other candidates, such as Billy Donovan, were seriously approached.

Either way, it appeared Barnhart wanted to land an experienced coach with a winning pedigree.

Mark Pope was never mentioned until it appeared Kentucky had failed to attract its top candidates. Pope, who won a national title as a player at Kentucky in 1996, has a solid coaching record after stints at Utah Valley and BYU. But let’s be honest here: This is a major difference from Calipari.

The expectation was Kentucky would make a splash with its next coach. Right now, there are more questions than answers about the expected hiring of Pope to be the next Wildcats head coach.

Jeff Borzello and Myron Medcalf attempt to answer a few of them, including what the move would mean for Pope, Kentucky and BYU.

What would compel Mark Pope to take the job at Kentucky? Why did Kentucky offer him the job?

Myron Medcalf: Mitch Barnhart had a wish list of who’s who coaches. I’m sure he’ll admit he never thought he’d end up with Pope. There’s nothing wrong with Pope. He’s a good coach with a solid record at this point in his career. But this is Kentucky, arguably the top job in college basketball. Even though Pope has ties to the school, this is a significant promotion for a guy who coached at Utah Valley and BYU but never won an NCAA tournament game. But Barnhart might have preferred a younger coach — Pope is 51 years old — and familiarity when his top choices fell through.

Jeff Borzello: Kentucky clearly took big swings in the hours and days after John Calipari left for Arkansas. Jay Wright distanced himself from the job quickly, as did Hurley and Donovan. Kentucky reached out to Nate Oats, who released a statement saying he was staying at Alabama. Shaka Smart was on the list; he also wasn’t leaving. Drew mulled the decision for a day but declined. Kentucky made one more run at Hurley, offering him a huge salary — but he once again decided to stay. And that left Pope as the next name on the list, a former Kentucky player who won a national championship in Lexington. The potential targets on the next tier were all flawed in one way or another, and Pope’s connections to the school and understanding of the expectations gave him an edge.

Is this a good fit?

Medcalf: Pope won a national title, and he understands Kentucky basketball, including its rabid fan base. Beyond that? It’s difficult to see how this fits what Kentucky wanted: a coach with a big name who can continue to attract elite players and compete for national championships. Perhaps Pope will do that someday. He’s following a guy who attracted the top recruiting classes in the country and, at his best, reached the Final Four all but one year from 2010-11 to 2014-15 and won a national title. The expectation is to make Kentucky a contender again. This isn’t a rebuild.

Borzello: It’s an interesting fit, one more in line with Duke hiring Jon Scheyer and North Carolina hiring Hubert Davis than, say, Arkansas hiring John Calipari. Pope doesn’t have the résumé some of the other potential candidates possessed, never winning an NCAA tournament game or a regular-season title and spending only one year coaching in a high-major conference. But he’s got some name recognition, especially in Lexington, and he’ll understand what being the head coach of Kentucky entails. The expectations are going to be enormous from day one, however, something he hasn’t dealt with during his time at Utah Valley and BYU.

What is Pope’s first order of business in Lexington?

Medcalf: A coach is usually asked to win the news conference and make an immediate splash with the fan base. But I think there will be a lot of backlash. If he’s personable, it will help his cause. The only real way to address negative reactions will be to assemble top talent from both the transfer portal and the high school ranks — from those players who aren’t yet committed. His window is small, though. His words won’t matter as much as his recruiting class.

Borzello: The same thing it would be for anyone who replaced Calipari: Rebuild the roster. Since Calipari left for Arkansas, Rob Dillingham turned pro, Aaron Bradshaw entered the portal and three of the program’s six 2024 commitments reopened their recruitments. There’s not a lot left for Pope, especially with a couple of other players expected to go to the NBA. And unlike Scott Drew or Dan Hurley, it’s unlikely Pope brings a lot of Kentucky-level players with him to the Wildcats.

What’s next for BYU?

Medcalf: BYU is a good job with a supportive fan base. It also has strong boosters who back the program. A lot of coaches will inquire, but Mark Madsen — who is currently at Cal — seems to make the most sense. Like Pope, Madsen also had a successful stint at Utah Valley before moving to Berkeley last summer. He has local ties, and he played in the NBA for a long stretch. Madsen seems like the right guy.

Borzello: BYU is likely to have a fairly short list to replace Pope. Madsen will be on it, although he has a buyout and it’s unclear if he’d want to leave Berkeley after one season. A couple of other names to watch: UNLV assistant coach Barret Peery, Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Alex Jensen and Utah assistant coach Chris Burgess.


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