The coach who gave Mark Pope his first basketball job makes sense of what’s happening now

When news broke a couple of weeks ago that Mark Pope would be the next head coach at the University of Kentucky, the initial reaction across a vocal segment of the UK fan base — and much of the college basketball world at large — was pure shock.

On the very same day that Pope’s hiring became apparent, coaches with national championships on their résumés — Scott Drew, Dan Hurley and Billy Donovan — had been mentioned, to varying degrees of seriousness, as the top contenders for the vacancy left by John Calipari, another man with an NCAA title ring.

Pope had never even won an NCAA Tournament game, hence that initial shock.

Once it wore off, Kentucky fans quickly and proudly coalesced behind the new leader of their beloved program. The coach who hired Pope for his first job in college basketball 15 years ago didn’t need any such period of reflection. He wasn’t shocked. He wasn’t even surprised.

Mark Fox saw it coming.

As soon as Fox started to hear the rumors that Calipari might be leaving Lexington for Arkansas, he reached out to Pope.

“I told him, ‘You better get ready.’”

Fox, who was announced as a member of Pope’s first UK coaching staff Wednesday afternoon, spoke to the Herald-Leader about his longtime friend and former assistant before he officially landed that job.

Fifteen years after Fox gave Pope his first college basketball gig — and more than 30 years after they first met — what’s happened over these past two weeks has come as no surprise to one of the many coaches that sensed something special in Pope a long time ago.

That Fox hired Pope onto his first staff at Georgia — pulling the former UK captain straight out of medical school — has been an oft-told tale from Pope’s point of view, a man with a young family on the verge of becoming a doctor and choosing a different direction in life, returning to the grind of a sport he clearly couldn’t let go of climbing his way up the ladder.

Fox’s decision to hire Pope back in 2009 didn’t come lightly, and it was no spur-of-the-moment occurrence. Their relationship was also nearly 20 years old by the time Fox facilitated Pope’s career leap.

Mark Pope spent the 2009-10 college basketball season as an assistant on Mark Fox’s coaching staff at Georgia.
Mark Pope spent the 2009-10 college basketball season as an assistant on Mark Fox’s coaching staff at Georgia.

The two first met at Washington, where Fox started his own coaching career as a 22-year-old assistant and Pope arrived in 1991 as a college freshman. When Huskies coach Lynn Nance was let go at the end of the 1992-93 season, they went their separate ways, Pope transferring to Kentucky and Fox continuing a career that eventually led to the head coaching position at Nevada a little more than a decade later. Still, the two stayed in touch over the years.

Pope was nearing the start of his fourth year of medical school at Columbia University when Fox brought him aboard as part of his first Georgia staff, but the coaching conversations began earlier than that.

“He had actually expressed interest in coaching and joining my coaching staff when I was still the coach at Nevada,” Fox said. “He called me a couple of years in a row like, ‘Hey, are you ready to hire me as a coach?’”

Fox wasn’t completely sure how serious he was at the time.

“I was like, ‘You’re in medical school. You’re gonna be a great doctor.’”

The calls continued, and the gaps between them shortened.

“Let me get into coaching. I’ll do whatever,” Pope would say.

“And he’s got such a great personality, so I always thought he was halfway joking and halfway serious,” Fox said.

He told Pope — like other coaches at the time were telling him — that he would be “a tremendous doctor” if he stuck with medical school. Did Fox ever think his old player might be a little crazy for wanting to jump back into basketball at that stage?

“Oh, sure,” he said. “I asked the hard questions. I even told him, ‘If I need surgery, I want you holding the knife.’ But he had a passion to help young people. And a passion for the game. And any hard question I asked over the years, he always had a great answer to.”

When Fox got the head coaching job at Georgia, he received yet another call from Pope.

“And I just said to him: ‘If you’re really serious about coaching, camp starts on Sunday.’”

That was only three or four days notice, by Fox’s recollection.

“And, sure enough, he showed up Sunday morning, ready to work camp,” he said. “So I couldn’t tell him no. And he was tremendous. And you could tell he was going to be great.”

In the time between, Pope had told the dean of the medical school that he was leaving, worked his final hospital shift and hopped in the car to drive south and begin another basketball life.

Once it became clear that Pope was genuinely serious about starting a career in coaching and had thought through the potential consequences of leaving med school, Fox didn’t have any reservations about bringing him on.

“If you cut him open, he just bleeds winner,” he said. “You could just see — in every facet of his life — he was successful. And he was a tremendously hard worker. And he was just successful. But he wasn’t successful because anything was given to him. He earned everything, and he had a great passion to work.”

Mark Fox, who is now an associate coach at Kentucky, was the head coach at Georgia for nine seasons.
Mark Fox, who is now an associate coach at Kentucky, was the head coach at Georgia for nine seasons.

Fox obviously already thought highly of Pope or he wouldn’t have given him the opening to come to Athens in the first place. It didn’t take much time observing him in the basketball setting there to know that Pope, whose title at Georgia was director of basketball operations, might be going places if he stuck with coaching.

“I knew then,” Fox said. “And I told him, I said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to be a really good coach, you have to learn the profession from the ground up. So you have to count shoestrings and check classes and do all the things that guys learn when they start.’ And no job was too small for him. And I could tell that he had a real commitment to learn the profession. And to impact winning. And to impact young people.

“So it didn’t take long to see that he was going to be successful.”

Pope spent one year learning the ropes at Georgia before heading to Wake Forest, where he spent a season as an assistant under Jeff Bzdelik, who had coached him in the NBA, and then moving on to BYU, where he spent another four years on staff, leading to the top job at Utah Valley in 2015. Four years after that, Pope became the head coach at BYU and earned the reputation as an innovative offensive mind during his five seasons in that position.

Fox noted that Pope played for great coaches — Rick Pitino, George Karl and Larry Bird, among them — and was a student of the game along the way.

“He obviously has great basketball experience,” he said. “And so he had very valuable input as we took over Georgia. I don’t think he adopted the style he has now over those first couple of years. I think it took him time to adopt that. But he had great input. And he has terrific knowledge. So he was really an asset for us as we got started.”

Fox said he got to see parts of Pope’s electric introduction in Rupp Arena two weeks ago. “It’s great that the Big Blue Nation — which I’ve witnessed up close and personal — it’s great to see their passion and support for the beginning of his tenure.”

He’s also looking forward to sharing the same sideline with his former player and assistant again this coming season. Fox, with 18 years of Division I head coaching experience, will be in a different role this time around. Patrolling that sideline will be “Kentucky head coach Mark Pope” — a series of words that might still sound strange to some, but sound just right to his old boss.

“I’m not surprised at all that he’s taken the reins at Kentucky. I’m really not. I mean, he’s a very talented and committed coach. And any success he has is really of no surprise to me.”

With former Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua looking on, UK’s Tony Delk straightens the jacket of former teammate Mark Pope before the Wildcats played Georgia in Rupp Arena on Jan. 9, 2010.
With former Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua looking on, UK’s Tony Delk straightens the jacket of former teammate Mark Pope before the Wildcats played Georgia in Rupp Arena on Jan. 9, 2010.

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