‘It’s going to be a home run.’ High school coaches weigh in on Mark Pope’s hire at Kentucky.

The news of Mark Pope’s hiring as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky surprised a number of the state’s boys high school coaches the same way it did most Big Blue Nation fans on Thursday night.

But coaches contacted by the Herald-Leader on Friday offered a much more optimistic view of the former UK player’s hiring than could be found among the vitriol on social media.

“It was kind of shocking to tell you the truth, but the more you think about it, I know he’s a great guy and I know he loves Kentucky and he’s extremely smart,” said Madison Central coach Allen Feldhaus Jr., who led the Indians to the 2013 Boys’ Sweet 16 state title with future UK player Dominique Hawkins and whose younger brother Deron is one of UK’s “Unforgettables.” “I’ve watched his team play quite a bit. He did a lot with a little, I thought. My biggest concern would be his recruiting. I hope he can. I’m all for him. I just feel sorry for him with the reaction he’s getting.”

Feldhaus, like a number of other coaches, believe Pope’s enthusiasm and style of play will eventually win over skeptical fans who question his coaching credentials at stops that included Utah Valley and, most recently, Brigham Young.

Pope’s teams shoot a ton of 3-pointers and get long-range shots from all over the lineup, including the big men.

“If he’s going to bring that type of offense … you would think that for people around here, that should be what we’re looking for — a really exciting offense,” said Great Crossing coach Steve Page, who happens to coach one of the top junior centers in the nation, 7-foot-1 Malachi Moreno, a four-star recruit with at least 23 college offers, including UK. “I’d like to see him bring a recent UK player in, maybe keep Tyler Ulis, he would be great to keep on staff and try to tie the Pitino era and Calipari era together.”

Pope’s experience with the rabid UK fan base as a player and his declared love for the school should also help win fans over, coaches said.

“Coming from a guy that knows a little bit about taking your alma mater over, sometimes knowing the nature of the beast is the best part,” Lexington Catholic’s Brandon Salsman said. “I’m excited for him. I was a huge fan in ‘96, and I think he’s got the perfect personality for it and I think kids will flock to play for him. I think it’s going to be a home run.”

“I’m excited to see what he can do for UK basketball,” George Rogers Clark’s Josh Cook said. “Anytime you can bring in a guy who played here and is going to bring a passion for the state of Kentucky — I’m sure he’ll do some great things.”

Many online critics wanted Kentucky to pursue a few more big-name coaches, like they did with unsuccessful runs at Baylor’s Scott Drew and Connecticut’s Dan Hurley.

“I think right now it’s one of the most difficult, challenging jobs in the country, so hats off to Coach Pope for taking that challenge,” Newport’s Rodney Snapp said. “It doesn’t matter who gets that job, it’s going to be tough. … UK fans’ expectations are off the charts. They don’t have a lot of patience.”

Snapp coaches Taylen Kinney, one of the most highly recruited sophomore point guards in the nation. Kentucky had not yet offered Kinney, according to Snapp, but the Cats remained interested and likely will continue to be under the new regime.

Brigham Young head coach Mark Pope reacts to a play against Houston on Jan 23 in Provo, Utah.
Brigham Young head coach Mark Pope reacts to a play against Houston on Jan 23 in Provo, Utah.

Butler County’s Calvin Dockery coaches junior guard Ty Price, one of the top scorers in the state last season at 29 points per game. Last season, the Bears won their first 3rd Region title in school history with one of the highest-scoring teams in the state.

“I’m a huge Kentucky fan. I’ve been a Kentucky fan my whole life and I’m all-in on it,” Dockery said of Pope’s hire. “I remember Mark playing for UK and how hard he played. And that team was a really good team and very cohesive. You know, he runs a really good offense at BYU, so there’s no reason to think he can’t do that here. I know a lot of people are saying that they’re not sure that he can recruit, but I think at Kentucky he’ll be able to recruit just fine.”

Dockery also believes Pope can win over critics with his style of play and that he’ll place an emphasis on in-state recruiting as well.

“I think he is definitely going to give some of our kids maybe more of an opportunity than they’ve had in the past. There’s a lot of talent in this state and a lot of times that talent ends up going somewhere else,” Dockery said. “Kids like to play an up-and-down style where they can shoot, rebound and run, and I think once the naysayers see his style and really understand his style, I think some of them will start to come around.”

Warren Central’s William Unseld played for South Carolina before becoming a state championship high school coach for the Dragons. Unseld’s son, Kade, has signed with Western Kentucky. Even though he has no dog in the fight, Unseld watched Thursday’s online furor with interest.

“You just don’t know who’s going to do a good job there. They got, from what I saw, (Pope) has been a great coach everywhere else. Kentucky’s a different monster, though,” Unseld said. “I don’t know if you’re ever going to please everybody with who (Barnhart) hired. He’s walking into the fire and he’s got to put it out a little bit. He’s got to win the press conference for sure.”

Regardless of the negative feedback of some Kentucky fans, the UK job is worth a shot, coaches said.

“At any level of basketball with social media being so powerful, you’re going to get (criticism),” Snapp said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re coaching preschoolers or middle school, high school, college or NBA.”

“You can’t blame him for wanting this job. I think he’d be the type of guy that could handle it because he’s going to get to work,” Feldhaus said. “My big thing — I was a Pitino guy — and he played for him, so that’s next best, I guess.”

“That’s the University of Kentucky. Everybody thinks that Adolph Rupp is going to come out of the grave or John Wooden’s going to come back or something like that,” Salsman said. “But a lot of people are a little nervous about coming in and taking on something so big, which is why you’ve got to give Mark Pope a ton of credit for being brave enough and strong-willed enough to know that he can do the job.”

Great Crossing head coach Steve Page spoke with junior center Malachi Moreno (24) at the end of a game against Male at Scott County High School on Jan. 20.
Great Crossing head coach Steve Page spoke with junior center Malachi Moreno (24) at the end of a game against Male at Scott County High School on Jan. 20.

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