On the day UK introduced Mark Pope, it was Kentucky fans who made a statement

Hours before the Rupp Arena doors were to open for Mark Pope’s introductory news conference Sunday at 4:30 p.m., literally thousands of Kentucky backers were on the sidewalks outside the venue to get in line.

Once the doors opened, fans just kept coming and coming and coming.

Arena officials had only one side of the venue set up to host fans. Yet by 4:04 p.m., 26 minutes before the festivities were set to begin, the open side of the arena had filled up. The upper arena end zones were filling, too.

Meanwhile, video shot contemporaneously outside of Rupp Arena showed thousands more still trying to get in.

As UK backers just kept coming and coming, a curtained barrier set up to shield the side of the arena that was not to be in use was taken down.

By the time Pope, the former Kentucky big man and now ex-BYU head coach, entered Rupp Arena on a bus filled with other past UK basketball lettermen, Rupp Arena looked all but completely full — some 20,545 strong.

When Pope took the stage to address the crowd, the new UK head man stood, shaking his head. He kept mouthing the word “unbelievable.”

It was every bit that.

New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Silas Walker/
New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Silas Walker/

On the day Kentucky formally introduced John Calipari’s replacement as Wildcats men’s basketball coach, it was the Big Blue Nation that made a statement.

By filling Rupp to the brim — on short notice, no less — for what was more a pep rally than a news conference, the UK fans wrapped this new era in Kentucky basketball in an exuberant embrace.

“I’ve seen a lot of things with Kentucky basketball,” said Lukasz Obrzut, one of the ex-Cats who rode into the arena with Pope. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like this.”

From its selection of Pope, the team captain of UK’s 1996 NCAA championship team, to having him enter Rupp Arena on a bus with his former Kentucky teammates and other ex-Cats, it seems apparent that the UK Athletics administration is going strong on putting the “Kentucky” back into Kentucky basketball.

It was not stated explicitly, but it certainly seems that Calipari’s mantra of “players first” is going to be replaced in the new era by “Kentucky first.”

In introducing Pope, UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart made a pointed reference to the 1981 Jefferson Starship song “Find Your Way Back.”

“Pope will guide us back to our heart,” Barnhart said.

In his own remarks, Pope seemed to go out of his way to hit on every sore point that had developed in the Calipari era among many in the UK fan base.

Pope spoke of the importance of Kentucky “hanging banners” from the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

As UK has gone 2-5 in its last five trips to the SEC tourney, Calipari’s stated lack of enthusiasm for the event had begun to rankle Kentucky fans — whose emphasis on the league tournament is shown by the strong numbers of Cats backers who attend.

Pope expressed enthusiasm for UK again playing in the Maui Classic, an event that Calipari eschewed.

He spoke of potentially hiring a “general manager” to help with navigating the elastic rosters of the transfer portal, a move many believed Calipari needed to make.

To a proud fan base whose team has failed to get out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend since 2019 and has won only one SEC regular-season crown (2020) and one SEC Tournament title (2018) in the past seven seasons, Pope spoke directly.

Noting that it is tradition for a new coach to “moderate expectations” at his introductory news conference, Pope instead said, “We don’t do that here at Kentucky. I understand the assignment. We are here to win banners.”

Of the players he plans to recruit to UK, Pope said they would not be “doing these jerseys a favor by letting them clothe them. It will be one of the great honors of their life to put that jersey on.”

While UK was clearly drawing a contrast with the “quickest pathway to the NBA” ethos of the Calipari era, it might have been nice if someone had at least thanked the ex-UK head man for his 15 years of service to the commonwealth.

Rex Chapman, another ex-Cat who rode into the arena on the bus with Pope, noted that UK players from the Calipari era are experiencing a coaching transition at their college for the first time.

“I want to be sure that all of Cal’s players, from John Wall to Anthony Davis to Boogie (Cousins) to Reed Sheppard and D.J. (Wagner), (know that) ‘we need you all,’” Chapman said. “’You all helped build this and sustained it. Please come back. Please be a part of this.’”

Mostly, Mark Pope’s introduction as UK basketball coach became a statement by Wildcats basketball fans.

When Pope’s family, wife Lee Anne and daughters Ella, Avery, Layla and Shay first entered Rupp, the fans raised the roof.

There was a guy dressed in white flowing robes and a canonical hat as if, well, he were the Pope. There was a little girl in a Kentucky T-shirt holding up a hand-made sign that read “Hope in Pope.” Once he took the stage, Mark Pope led a “C-A-T-S” chant that gained so much energy, it wouldn’t stop.

“It showed where these fans were and that they are ready for something that I think is going to be really special,” ex-UK guard Richie Farmer said. “There’s nowhere else but Kentucky where this could have happened.”

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