Christopher Harris: Pope is the nice guy who can finish first at Kentucky

Apr. 15—Long before Sunday's press conference-turned-tent revival in Rupp Arena, Mark Pope won me over with socks.

As a 15-year-old kid during Rick Pitino's glory days with the Kentucky Wildcats, I had managed to get my hands on one of the media guides for the 1995-96 team at the start of the season.

You remember that season, right? National championship. 34-2 record, undefeated conference regular season. Stars piled on top of stars on top of stars (Nazr Mohammed, who would go on to have a pro career of nearly two decades and win a title with the San Antonio Spurs, couldn't get on the court as a freshman).

The media guide features little bits of trivia about each player based on interviews with them, called "Scratches." In Pope's column, he was asked to answer this question: "If I had a million dollars, I'd buy .." and he responded "More socks."

Athletes tend to be known for, well, athletics, not for sharp wits or offbeat personalities. But that's the kind of person with whom I identified, and that's who Pope was, and is. His favorite book, per the media guide? "Paradise Lost." His greatest moment in sports? "When Coach Pitino told me to stop talking so much because I was wasting oxygen." The man was a Rhodes Scholar candidate, for crying out loud. I liked the fact that he had brains as well as basketball acumen, and decided right then and there that he was my favorite University of Kentucky basketball player.

As we've heard so many times over the past weekend, Pope was a captain on that team, and sacrificed a starting spot for the good of the team. He started only six games that year, playing just over 20 minutes per game, before going on to a lengthy pro career where he played under basketball savants like Larry Bird and George Karl — don't believe Pope when he self-effacingly says he's the worst player ever in the pros. You don't stick around eight years in the NBA if that's the case.

Now, Pope is head coach of the Wildcats, which would be something of a dream come true for 15-year-old Chris. Particularly after years of John Calipari, who always seemed more interested in getting players to the NBA rather than keeping them in blue and white, Pope's press conference was a living love letter to Lexington and the UK program. He made it clear: The program isn't about him, and it isn't about the players. It's about the state. It's about the community. It's about the fans. For years now, he has been a fan from afar, and now he gets to be the one tasked with overseeing maybe the most high-pressure job in college basketball — something he understands well already.

I am excited. I am engaged in the program again. And I'm nervous.

A lot of people were nervous when he was hired. Big names like Dan Hurley of UConn and Scott Drew of Baylor were being tossed around for the coaching job; Pope wasn't a big name. He'd made waves at Brigham Young University, particularly in helping them not just survive but thrive in what could have been a rough first year in a Power 5 conference, the Big 12.

But likely few Kentuckians watched much BYU basketball, and Pope hasn't won a game in two NCAA Tournament trips. (Part of that is due to the 2020 Big Dance being cancelled due to Covid — that team was 24-8 and finished no. 18 in the AP poll, and may have done very well had there been a tournament. Somewhere in an alternate universe without Covid, Pope already has a Sweet 16 on his resume.)

But fairly quickly, fans came around. They realized that basically all of the Basketball Blue Bloods most recently hired coaches without rock-solid resumes — even Hurley's wasn't all that impressive until the last two years. They realized he was "one of us," someone who loved the program, wanted to be here, runs a fun offense (look it up on YouTube — you won't regret it), and helps reconnect the program to its glorious past.

No, I'm nervous because Mark Pope is coming home — and in college sports, it's hard to come home again.

Look at Kenny Payne at Louisville in basketball. Or Joker Phillips at Kentucky in football. Former players who likely would have remained beloved by much of the fan base had it not been for disastrous coaching tenures.

I don't believe that Pope's fate will mirror theirs in any way — I think he's already proven he's a better coach than that — but I also don't relish the idea of his name ever becoming a dirty word to the fan base he loves so much. And there's a non-zero possibility of that.

More relevant, if seemingly coincidental, UK's coaching roster fits a pattern. A larger-than-life icon whose relationship with the school deteriorates over time. Next, a nice guy with connections to the program who does very well — just not as well as the last guy, leading to intense criticism. Then someone who can't handle the job at all.

Adolph Rupp — brash, intense, dominant of personality — was the first icon. He set the standard, not just for UK but for all of college basketball, at least until John Wooden came along. I wasn't around back then to observe, but all the accounts say Rupp was unwillingly forced into retirement, and although the fan base continued to embrace him, his latter years weren't his best.

Joe B. Hall was his assistant and took over in 1972. Hall was more likable — particularly as time pressed on and he became grandfatherly. He won a national title in '78, and had two more Final Four trips as well. But for many, none of this was enough. He didn't play like Rupp did. He didn't win like Rupp did. And he was just never beloved the same way.

Then came Eddie Sutton, a coach who succeeded elsewhere (at a Southwest Conference School) but simply couldn't handle the stresses posed by coaching at UK, resulting in a dark period of NCAA probation. Then the cycle began anew. Pitino — brash, intense, dominant of personality — rescued UK, played exciting basketball, won a title and made two other Final Fours in a five-year span. His relationship with the school didn't deteriorate before he left for the Boston Celtics — but it certainly did once he returned to the state to coach the arch rival Louisville Cardinals.

Tubby Smith, a former assistant of Pitino's at UK (and my personal favorite of all these coaches), was more likable and he won a title, kept the program nationally relevant, knocked on the door of the Final Four three more times, coming up just short, had an undefeated conference record in '03, and never had so much as a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. But he didn't play like Pitino, he didn't win like Pitino, and he was just never beloved the same way. Then came Billy Gillisipie, a coach who had enjoyed some success at a former Southwest Conference school, and ... well, we don't talk about that era.

The cycle repeats. In comes Calipari — brash, intense, dominant of personality. He quickly becomes an icon in Kentucky, winning the 2012 national championship, and making at least the Final Four in four out of his first six years. But the relationship deteriorated, Calipari's dynamic with the fans and others seemed to snowball into something more and more toxic each year, and now he's at Arkansas (humorously enough, that's where Sutton was before UK). And a very likable guy with previous connections to the program is now the coach once again.

The good news is, based on past history, this likely means a title and a pretty good overall record is on the way for Pope. The bad news is, if it follows the pattern, even that will never be enough to escape Calipari's shadow.

But there are differences. For one, I don't think fans were as sad to see Cal go as they were Rupp or Pitino. For another, Pope "understands the assignment," as he made clear during Sunday's introductory celebration.

Without saying so in these exact words, he basically made it clear he knows he starts this job on the hot seat and that will never relent. He knows criticism is coming — and he pointed out that it begins for him on his group chat with other former UK players. He was up front about embracing this rough reality rather than trying to temper expectations and soften his cushion. If Pope fails to keep up the Kentucky standard, he knows what has to happen — and he knows how hard that will be. But for him, the risk is worth the reward.

Pope is likable — he is still goofy, still quirky, still cerebral, all the things I first noticed in that media guide — but there is something else in him. A hint of that brashness, that intensity, that personality that Rupp and Pitino and Calipari all had. He doesn't just want to win; he feels a calling to do so for this program. He appears driven to get to the sport's mountaintop. He took subtle jabs at Calipari's way of doing things — it was fun to see a little nasty in his niceness.

He left what could have been a simple, non-controversial career in the medical field to revisit basketball and make his name in the coaching world. That suggests there is fire in his belly to pursue this thing to its ends, something coaches must have if they are to survive the slings and arrows that will come their way to enjoy the outrageous fortune that arrives with winning.

At Kentucky, nice guys haven't exactly finished last, but neither have they enjoyed quite the legacy of the bad boys — the Baron. Slick Rick. Swaggy Cal. I believe Pope can change that. After all, he has never marched to the beat of the conventional drummer. Why should he start fitting patterns now?

It's time to go win, and do so the Kentucky way — and no one appears hungrier for this outcome than Mark Pope himself. Do so, and you can have all the socks you want, coach.