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Kentucky signs Mark Pope to 5-year deal to replace John Calipari as head coach

In Sports
April 12, 2024
Mark Pope replaces John Calipari, who left Kentucky this week to take over the head coaching job at Arkansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Mark Pope replaces John Calipari, who left Kentucky this week to take over the head coaching job at Arkansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Mark Pope is the new Kentucky men’s basketball coach, the school announced on Friday.

Pope, 51, signed a five-year contract to coach the Wildcats after spending the past five seasons at BYU.

“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,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “As a captain on the ‘96 championship team, Mark was a beloved and respected teammate. As a head coach, he is highly regarded nationally as an innovator. His teams run a unique and dynamic up-tempo offense and they get after it on defense. He is a strong recruiter with international ties and a person of integrity.

“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.”

According to CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, Pope will earn $5.5 million per season, before incentives.

Pope played two seasons at Kentucky from 1994-96 under Rick Pitino, winning a national title in 1996, and now joins Joe B. Hall as the only coaches to go on to coach the men’s team after playing for the program. That’s a positive on Pope’s résumé as he takes over a blue blood.

His history as a coach makes the hire quite a surprise.

Pope has worked as a head coach since 2015 at BYU and Utah Valley. With the Cougars, he has posted a 110-52 record in five seasons, with two NCAA tournament berths. His teams failed to win a game in both appearances, getting upset as a No. 6 seed in the first round of both.

Kentucky has advanced out of the first round of the NCAA tournament only once since 2019 after a run of dominance during John Calipari’s first 10 seasons in Lexington.

It was an interesting road to get to Pope for Kentucky. At least four current and former head coaches said they weren’t interested or turned down the chance to take over the job following Calipari’s departure to Arkansas. Those four were UConn’s Dan Hurley, Alabama’s Nate Oats, Baylor’s Scott Drew and former Villanova coach Jay Wright.

Rick Pitino gives his endorsement

If there are any Kentucky fans skeptical of Pope’s hire, perhaps Rick Pitino’s endorsement will persuade them.

The former Kentucky head coach released a video Friday after Pope was announced as UK’s new coach and spoke glowingly of his former player.

“Mark Pope, offensively, no one does it better,” the current St. John’s coach said. “The way his teams move, the way his teams shoot the 3, the ball movement, the player movement is outstanding. What you don’t realize is it took Jay Wright 11 years to finally get an NCAA win. [Former Florida head coach and current Chicago Bulls coach] Billy Donovan was at Marshall for two years, didn’t have an NCAA appearance. He went on to greatness. Mark Pope will go on to greatness. You can put it down.”

Pope’s first task at Kentucky will be attempting to keep together a top-five recruiting class. Calipari had signed the No. 2 class in the country according to Rivals and the five-player group included three five-star recruits. If Pope can convince those recruits to stay at Kentucky, he’ll have a huge head start.

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