New Kentucky coach Mark Pope not afraid of big expectations

League: NCAA Basketball

Posted on: 15 Apr, 2024 at 12:29 AM

Credit: Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

New Kentucky men's basketball coach Mark Pope looked around a full Rupp Arena on Sunday afternoon and ramped up the expectation.

Part of why John Calipari is no longer the coach of the Wildcats is that recent results have dipped below expectations, but Pope wasn't worrying about that while taking part in his first public unveiling as coach of his alma mater.

"Every coach in America at every other job in America stands up at the press conference and they try and moderate expectations," Pope told the crowd. "We don't do that here at Kentucky. When (athletic director) Mitch (Barnhart) called me and talked to me about being the head coach here at Kentucky, I understand the assignment. We are here to win banners.

"And as we go through this journey, we're here to win banners (at the Southeastern Conference tournament) in Nashville, because you guys turn out in Nashville like nobody else and that matters. And we are here, our job here, our assignment is to go win banners in the Final Four, win national championships. That's our job."

Pope, 51, was part of Kentucky's 1995-96 national championship squad coached by Rick Pitino so he experienced the expectations as a player, too.

The Wildcats exited in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this season -- losing to No. 14 seed Oakland -- for the second embarrassing first-round loss in three seasons. Kentucky also lost to No. 15 seed Saint Peter's in 2022.

Barnhart was impressed by Pope's 110-52 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons at BYU.

But being part of the Wildcats family might have been a bigger factor.

"He will guide us back to our heart, through all of the changes in college sports, he understands the DNA that leads us to the destination," Barnhart said of Pope. "He says this has changed the trajectory of his life. We're excited for this, for him to do this for our program and our guys."

The crowd of more than 23,000 repeatedly roared as Pope declined to back down from expectations. He all but promised that Kentucky will win big under his watch.

"We are trying to win and our goal is to win every game we play," Pope said. "That is what we are shooting for, trying to win. Listen, and 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."

Pope is 187-108 as a college coach, including a 77-56 mark in four seasons at Utah Valley from 2015 to 2019.

Calipari spent 15 seasons at Kentucky before leaving for Arkansas last week. He made four Final Four appearances and won the national title in 2012. But the program last reached the Final Four in 2015. Calipari coached the Wildcats to a 410-123 record.

Kentucky was just 23-10 overall this season for its third double-digit loss campaign in four seasons.

--Field Level Media