Mark Pope reaches deal with Kentucky to be next head basketball coach

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope looks at the replay against Texas Tech during the Big 12 conference championship in Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday, March 14, 2024.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope looks at the replay against Texas Tech during the Big 12 conference championship in Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

BYU Cougars head men’s basketball coach Mark Pope has reached a deal with Kentucky to become the school’s next head basketball coach.

Kentucky announced the deal on X Friday morning, writing, “Welcome home.”

“Mark Pope not only brings an impressive record in nine years as a head coach, but also a love of the University of Kentucky and a complete understanding of what our program means to the people of our state,” University of Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “As a captain on the ‘96 championship team, Mark was a beloved and respected teammate. As a head coach, he is highly regarded nationally as an innovator. His teams run a unique and dynamic up-tempo offense and they get after it on defense. He is a strong recruiter with international ties and a person of integrity.”

Barnhart continued, “He fully embraces our high expectations and standards and I know that as our fans get reacquainted with Mark, they will be eager to join him on what promises to be an exciting ride.”

Pope, 51, was seen as a long shot candidate for the position when it opened following the departure of John Calipari to Arkansas, but numerous candidates such as Alabama’s Nate Oats and Baylor’s Scott Drew turned down the position to remain at their respective schools.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, college basketball insider Jon Rothstein reported that Pope had become a serious candidate.

Pope played his final two years of college ball at Kentucky in the 1990s after transferring from Washington. He won a national championship with the Wildcats in 1996.

In a Friday statement, Pope described Kentucky as the “pinnacle of college basketball.”

“UK changed my life forever as a human being. The love and passion I have for this program, this University and the people of the Commonwealth goes to the depth of my soul. I’m thankful to Dr. (Eli) Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart for this opportunity. I’m proud to be your next head coach and I can’t wait to do this together!,” he said.

Pope’s coach at Kentucky, Rick Pitino, has long endorsed his former player, and told on Thursday prior to the evening’s major news that, “I love Mark Pope and his family and he would be an unbelievable choice” for the Wildcats opening.

Following his collegiate playing career, Pope was the 52nd pick of the 1996 NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers. The 6-foot-10 center played eight seasons in the league, with his most impressive being the 2000-2001 campaign with the Milwaukee Bucks when he appeared in 63 games with 45 starts and averaged 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 15 minutes per appearance.

In five years at BYU, Pope has tallied a 110-52 record, which has included two trips to the NCAA Tournament but no victories. This last season, the Cougars’ first in the vaunted Big 12 Conference, Pope led his team to a surprising 23-11 record and a fifth-place finish in the conference, but BYU lost in the first round of the Big Dance to Duquesne.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe thanked Pope for his time at BYU in a statement shared on social media Friday morning.

“We want to thank Coach Pope for all that he has given to the BYU men’s basketball program in his nine years here as an assistant and head coach. His unique combination of passion, dedication, creativity and excitement has inspired our BYU community. He led our team to a very successful inaugural Big 12 season, and left the program in a position of strength moving forward,” Holmoe wrote.

He continued, “There is a lot for Cougar Nation to be excited about right now. We wish Mark all the best as the head coach at his alma mater. He will always be part of our BYU family.”

In four seasons prior to taking over at BYU, Pope went 77-56 at UVU.

In Kentucky, Pope will be taking over one of the historically elite programs in the nation. The Wildcats have the most victories of any program in the country all-time and have won eight national championships, as well as a bevy of other impressive achievements.