Analysis: Mark Pope wasn’t perfect at BYU, but his departure could leave program hurting for awhile

BYU coach Mark Pope speaks with Jaxson Robinson during game against Baylor, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Provo, Utah. On Thursday, news broke that the BYU coach is taking the head coach job at Kentucky.
BYU coach Mark Pope speaks with Jaxson Robinson during game against Baylor, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Provo, Utah. On Thursday, news broke that the BYU coach is taking the head coach job at Kentucky. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

A year ago at this time, Mark Pope’s seat was beginning to warm a little bit at BYU after the Cougars finished their final season in the West Coast Conference in a fifth-place tie with San Francisco and Pacific and failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year.

Now, he’s the head coach at Kentucky.

In the space of 12 months, the hyperbolic and ever-enthusiastic Pope went from having a mild case of the blues — by his standards — to one of the true blue bloods of college basketball.

So where does that leave BYU?

Could Pope’s departure be a blessing in disguise for the Cougars? Yeah, probably not. Cal coach Mark Madsen’s Friday morning statement that he is staying in Berkeley ended that pipe dream.

When Pope’s name started to surface as a possible candidate for the Kentucky job when John Calipari bolted for Arkansas, my immediate thought was that BYU would be in a world of hurt if big-name candidates such as UConn’s Dan Hurley, Alabama’s Nate Oats and Baylor’s Scott Drew turned down the Wildcats and UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart pursued Pope.

Well, the unthinkable has happened.

Everyone in Utah has always known that there were only a handful of jobs for which Pope would leave BYU, and Kentucky, his alma mater, was at the top of the list. BYU was a good fit for Pope; Kentucky will be an excellent one — at least that’s what Rick Pitino thinks.

That BYU has perhaps the most shallow coaching candidate pool in the country adds to the problem in Provo, especially if the school adheres to a long-standing practice that its head coaches be members of the faith that sponsors and supports the institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The next John Wooden, or even the next Mark Pope, isn’t walking through that door.

Chances that BYU gets a Pope replacement with previous Division I head coaching experience are slim to none. UNLV assistant Barret Peery, an average coach for four years at Portland State, is about the only viable candidate that checks that box.

That’s not to say that Pope was perfect in his five-year tenure at BYU after coming over from Utah Valley; his success this past season as BYU went 10-8 and finished fifth in the Big 12 after being picked to finish 13th can’t be ignored. It was a remarkable coaching job, especially considering that it was roughly the same team that went 19-15 the previous season.

But let’s not brush off Pope’s shortcomings at BYU, either. He lost two first-round games in the Big Dance he was favored to win, to UCLA and Duquesne, and could never overtake Saint Mary’s as the second-best team in the WCC behind Gonzaga, among other glaring deficiencies that should and are giving Kentucky fans some heartburn.

Still, BYU will have a hard time replacing him. A really hard time.

The impact on the program will be immediate and could be devastating, particularly if some of the players Pope had ticketed to head to BYU follow him to Lexington. Or go somewhere else. Keeping four-star recruit Collin Chandler at BYU will be Job One for the new coach, whoever that might be, when the Farmington High product returns from his church mission this summer.

Pope will almost certainly take some of his BYU assistants with him to Kentucky, as he did when he made the nine-minute drive from UVU to BYU back in 2019. BYU fans should at the very least expect assistant Cody Fueger and director of player personnel Keegan Brown, an analytics guru and a very unsung part of Pope’s success in Provo, to follow Pope to Kentucky.

Fueger would be an excellent choice to replace Pope, if BYU’s Board of Trustees can ignore the fact that he’s not a church member.

As for current players, there probably isn’t a member of BYU’s 2023-24 roster who could crack the rotation at Kentucky, with the possible exception of Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year Jaxson Robinson, who transferred to BYU from one of UK’s SEC rivals, Arkansas.

Robinson hasn’t announced yet whether he will stay at BYU for another year, enter the transfer portal or declare for the NBA draft. People in Provo close to Robinson say that it will almost certainly be one of the latter two options.

Late Thursday night, when reports were surfacing online that Pope was switching hues of blue, and reporters everywhere were scrambling to get confirmation, a current BYU basketball player who wished to remain anonymous told me he was already being contacted by “representatives” of other schools to gauge his interest in leaving.

Remember when football coach Bronco Mendenhall left for Virginia at the end of the 2015 season, leaving BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe in a tough position to find a replacement from an also-shallow candidates pool?

It was an OK transition — at first.

The Cougar gridders went 8-4 in Kalani Sitake’s first year — mostly with Mendenhall’s recruits — and Bronco wasn’t missed that much.

Then the program slipped backwards for a couple years before Sitake found his footing, and BYU’s handling of the pandemic got the program back on track. I’ve said it before: No football program in the country benefited more from COVID-19 than BYU.

No doubt about it, there are going to be some growing pains for a basketball program that was just starting to make a national dent, having beaten San Diego State, Kansas, Baylor and Iowa State in 2023-24.

How quickly BYU can recover after the loss of its Pope remains to be seen.

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, and BYU basketball coach Mark Pope take a selfie.