Sports

Former Kentucky basketball captain Mark Pope replaces John Calipari as program’s next head coach

Mark Pope is returning to Kentucky. The former college basketball player, who was the captain of the Wildcats’ 1996 national championship team, has been named the basketball program’s new head coach. 

Pope replaces John Calipari, who recently departed Lexington to take the head coaching job at Arkansas. The school announced Pope’s hiring in a release Friday morning but stopped short of revealing the terms of his contract. Pope’s introductory press conference is scheduled for Sunday at Rupp Arena.

Mark Pope speaks during a press conference

March 20, 2024: Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope talks with the media during the NCAA first round practice session at CHI Health Center Omaha. (Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports)

Calipari guided Kentucky to its eighth NCAA championship in 2012. He also coached the Wildcats to four Final Four appearances in 15 years. But Kentucky hasn’t returned there since going 38-1 in 2015. Calipari said he had decided to step down once he had realized that the basketball program was in need of “another voice.”

“The last few weeks, we’ve come to realize that this program probably needs to hear another voice, that the university as a whole has to have another voice giving guidance about this program that they hear, and the fans need to hear another voice. We’ve loved it here, but we think it’s time for us to step away and step away completely from the program.”

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Pope was 110-52 in five seasons with the Cougars and went 23-11 in their first season in the Big 12 Conference. BYU is also coming off a second NCAA Tournament appearance in four years under Pope.

He was 77-56 before that in four seasons at Utah Valley and guided the Wolverines to consecutive runner-up finishes in the Western Athletic Conference his final two years. They reached the CBI quarterfinals both times.

Mark Pope coaches a BYU game

Brigham Young head coach Mark Pope yells to players in the first half during an NCAA basketball game between University of Oklahoma (OU) and Brigham Young University (BYU) at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla., on February 6, 2024. (Nathan J. Fish/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart cited Pope’s impressive 187-108 career record as a head coach and keen knowledge of the program’s meaning to the state. Barnhart also praised Pope’s “dynamic” up-tempo offense and tough defense and called him an innovator.

“He is a strong recruiter with international ties and a person of integrity,” Barnhart said. “He fully embraces our high expectations and standards, and I know that as our fans get reacquainted with Mark, they will be eager to join him on what promises to be an exciting ride.”

Pope said he understands the expectations of taking over college basketball’s winningest program and the high expectations that come with it.

“It’s the definition of blueblood program where hanging a banner is the expectation ever year,” Pope said. “Equally as important, UK changed my life forever as a human being. The love and passion I have for this program, this University and the people of the Commonwealth goes to the depth of my soul.”

Mark Pope reacts after a basketball game

March 21, 2024, Omaha, NE: Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope reacts after losing their game against the Duquesne Dukes during the first round of the NCAA Tournament at CHI Health Center Omaha. (Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports)

Kentucky’s last deep NCAA Tournament came in 2019, when the team lost to SEC rival Auburn in the Elite Eight.

Saint John’s coach Rick Pitino, who led Kentucky back from NCAA sanctions to that 1996 title, believes the school found the right candidate, saying Pope “will go on to greatness.”

“You have one of the premier young coaches in the game. Relish it because he will do you proud,” Pitino said in a video posted to social media. “I know I sit here today in Saint John’s and I couldn’t be any more proud than to see Mark Pope lead the Kentucky Wildcats to another championship. He’ll get it done. He’s got the right stock.”

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe thanked Pope in a post on X and said he “left the program in a position of strength moving forward.”

Pope played in the NBA from 1998 to 2005 with the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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