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The initial reaction to Kentucky’s Mark Pope hire shows what we think is reality isn’t real

In our In the Spotlight stories, Herald-Leader journalists bring you continuing coverage of news and events important to our Central Kentucky community. Read more. Story idea? hlcityregion@herald-leader.com.

If there is one thing we learned from Kentucky hiring Mark Pope as its next basketball coach, it is this:

X or Twitter isn’t reality.

Sorry Elon Musk, it just isn’t.

I say this as someone who is on X a lot. More than I should be. The social media app can be entertaining and informative and addictive all at the same time. It can also be, as the writer James Wolcott perfectly described it, “the devil’s bulletin board.”

Last week, that board took a nasty turn.

When reports surfaced that UK was hiring BYU coach Mark Pope to succeed John Calipari as coach of the Wildcats, a sizable slice of Big Blue Nation took to the app to voice its displeasure. Not just displeasure, but outrage.

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

“Disaster. Gillespie 2.0.”

“Mitch Barnhart should be fired!”

Those were the printable ones.

Three days later, there were not enough seats in Rupp Arena for every Big Blue fan who wanted to attend Pope’s introductory press conference, which unfolded as a superbly choreographed mixture of pep rally, jubilee and revival.

So what happened? How did public opinion turn so quickly? How did a hire deemed so unpopular and outrageously wrong-headed at its beginning quickly become so wildly popular?

“He’s one of our own,” Barnhart said Sunday.

That had something to do with it, yes. Pope was not just part of UK’s 1996 national championship team, he was the team captain. He was also someone who has always worn his love for Kentucky proudly on his sleeve.

This is the same Mark Pope, who when he was unable to attend a reunion of that 1996 title team, provided a video of himself ripping off his shirt and tie at BYU to reveal his No. 41 Kentucky uniform, then proceeded to belt out the “C-A-T-S, Cats! Cats! Cats!” cheer.

The support of Pope’s former teammates and former UK players played an important part, too. From the beginning, they have been publicly outspoken about how much they loved the hire.

“There’s a few people in here that just (spelled-out expletive) on the whole thing,” Rex Chapman, who helped lead the social media charge in the hire’s favor, said Sunday. “And over the last few days, I’ve had a great time hearing, ‘You know what, I kind of like that hire.’”

But I’d also like to think that after that first knee-jerk reaction, skeptical Kentucky fans began doing their homework. In reacquainting themselves with Pope, they dug deeper into his background, his preferred style of play and his coaching record.

He went from 12-18 his first season at Utah Valley to 25-10 his last. His first BYU team finished 13th in the KenPom rankings before COVID canceled the NCAA Tournament. Last season, BYU’s first in the Big 12, the Cougars were picked to finish 13th in the 14-team league. Instead, BYU finished 10-8 with wins over Iowa State, Kansas and a Baylor team whose coach was at the top of Barnhart’s candidate list, before being knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Fans line up outside Rupp Arena to see new Kentucky men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope speak during an introductory event Sunday.
Fans line up outside Rupp Arena to see new Kentucky men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope speak during an introductory event Sunday.

Surely that sparked some of the negative reaction to UK’s hire. Baylor’s Scott Drew won a national title in 2021. UConn coach Danny Hurley, who might or might not have been next on Mitch’s list, has won two titles. Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who also might or might not have been prominent on Barnhart’s personal hot board, had won back-to-back titles at Florida.

Thus the feeling, at least among some Kentucky fans, was that after coming up empty in his big-game hunting expedition, the UK AD had settled for a coach who has never won an NCAA Tournament game.

But did that represent the majority opinion of Kentucky fans? That’s the question. Is social media — be it X or Facebook or TikTok — so prevalent in today’s society that we are tricked into believing it is a true measure of what we think as a whole?

Judging from what we saw Sunday, I doubt it.

At least I hope not.

Kentucky basketball fans want their program back. Mark Pope wants to give it to them.

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