The story behind UK’s coaching search: Mitch Barnhart’s process in arriving at Mark Pope

What a week it was in the world of Kentucky basketball.

Two Sundays ago, UK fans awoke fully expecting John Calipari to return to Lexington for his 16th season as the head coach of the Wildcats.

By that night, Big Blue Nation was in a frenzy amid buzz that its longtime leader was prepared to bolt the program for the same position at SEC rival Arkansas. And exactly one week later, Mark Pope was the new head coach of the Wildcats and had just presided over what was surely one of the most impressive pep rallies in college basketball history.

Quite a bit happened in between.

On Tuesday afternoon, Calipari ended 48 hours of rumor with his resignation.

In a letter dated April 9 and sent to UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart — obtained by the Herald-Leader via an open records request — the former UK coach officially informed his boss that he was stepping down.

“Dear Mitch, Please accept this letter as notice that I will resigning (sic) my position as head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. My final day of work will be today, April 9th. Thank you for the support and opportunities you have provided me over the course of the last fifteen (15) years. I am committed to making this transition as smooth as possible.

“I wish you and the University of Kentucky continued success. Sincerely, John Calipari.”

Records show that the letter was marked “read” at 2 p.m., around the same time he released a video on social media publicly announcing his departure.

With that, the Calipari era was officially over. And then things got a little crazy.

For nearly two days, Barnhart knew he was going to have a coaching vacancy, but he couldn’t formally move on filling one of the most prestigious positions in college sports until Calipari had officially resigned from the program. When that happened, the phones started buzzing.

It was already presumed that Baylor’s Scott Drew would be at the top of Barnhart’s list, and UK immediately reached out to the Bears’ head coach, who’d spent the past 21 seasons in Waco.

The Herald-Leader was also told that individuals connected to UK Athletics — but not Barnhart, specifically — reached out that same day to gauge the interest of Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan, who spent the first five years of his coaching career as an assistant under Rick Pitino at Kentucky before ultimately winning back-to-back NCAA titles at Florida and then moving on to the NBA.

Drew was interested enough to have conversations about the job with Kentucky, and some of his family members were flown to Lexington the following day on an aircraft belonging to a company owned by Joe Craft, the athletics department’s biggest booster.

The Herald-Leader was told that the response from Donovan’s camp was that the Bulls coach would not have any discussions related to the job as long as Chicago’s season was ongoing.

At that point, the earliest the Bulls’ season could end would be April 17 — Wednesday of this week and eight days out from the initial contact. The possibility remained, however, that Donovan could have been coaching deeper into April — or even further, if the Bulls had been able to pull off an NBA Playoffs upset — with the team already qualified for the league’s Play-In Tournament.

The Herald-Leader was also told last week that Donovan, while far from a certainty to accept the job, was as likely to jump back to college — particularly, to Kentucky — now as he had been at any point since leaving Florida for the NBA nine years ago.

He did not turn down the Wildcats’ interest outright, but there was also no request made of Barnhart and UK officials to wait for the Bulls’ season to end before filling the position. The word was simply that Donovan would not engage in direct conversations about the position until his current season was finished, and the 58-year-old coach said as much in a press conference that day, just after Calipari resigned.

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart gives Mark Pope a Kentucky basketball jersey with No. 23 at his press conference. Pope is the 23rd coach in program history and the seventh since Adolph Rupp retired in 1972. Silas Walker/
UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart gives Mark Pope a Kentucky basketball jersey with No. 23 at his press conference. Pope is the 23rd coach in program history and the seventh since Adolph Rupp retired in 1972. Silas Walker/

From Drew to Hurley to Pope

The immediate focus settled on Drew, who already had a friendly relationship with Barnhart and had led Baylor to the 2021 national championship, the culmination of one of the greatest program-building feats ever in college basketball.

Following his family’s trip from Waco to Lexington and back that Wednesday, many Kentucky fans went to bed that night and woke up the next morning expecting Drew to be named the Wildcats’ new head coach, possibly as soon as that Thursday.

On Thursday morning, however, Drew released a statement saying that he would stay put at Baylor.

Attention then quickly turned to UConn head coach Dan Hurley, who — just three days earlier — had led the Huskies to back-to-back NCAA titles, the first team to do that since Donovan’s Gators accomplished the feat 17 years earlier. Hurley was thought to be the top choice of a group of influential boosters, but he quickly put an end to any thought that he would seriously consider the Kentucky job, stating clearly that afternoon that he fully intended to stay in Storrs.

And then Donovan became the focus of much of the fan base. But, apparently, not Barnhart.

The Herald-Leader was told that there was no additional contact between anyone associated with UK and Donovan’s camp after that initial feeling-out process on the day of Calipari’s resignation. And Hurley never appeared to be a serious option at any point in the process.

Once Drew turned down the job and Hurley made it clear he wouldn’t consider it, Donovan’s was one of several names publicly floated as a possibility, with other options ranging from the return of Pitino — now the head coach at St. John’s — to just-as-unlikely candidates such as Auburn’s Bruce Pearl.

Barnhart, it’s clear, prioritized Pope once he knew Drew wasn’t coming to Kentucky.

Asked why he couldn’t wait for Donovan after Sunday night’s event in Rupp Arena — where Pope was enthusiastically greeted by a capacity crowd — Barnhart gave a response that indicated Pope was actually the next coach on his list after Drew took his name out of the running.

“There’s a lot of reasons,” Barnhart said of not waiting around for Donovan. “Number one, I felt comfortable with Mark. We’re diminishing — if they sit here and say, ‘Why didn’t I wait?’ I didn’t think I needed to. I was comfortable with who I had. I liked it. I knew where I wanted to go. I had a couple or two or three thoughts at the beginning. It played out.

“There’s no mystery we talked to someone first, and Mark knew that. I said, ‘This is the way it’s going to work.’ I was comfortable with our process, our research, the people I was talking to. I felt like I was ready to go. Let’s go.”

Once news broke that Kentucky would be interviewing Pope for the position, and then — when it became clear hours later that he was about to get the job — the social media backlash was intense. Whether or not that was an accurate portrayal of a majority of the fan base in that moment, the result of a sleep-deprived and shocked group of followers that simply needed a good night’s rest, or something in between, it’s become clear in the days since Thursday night’s stunning turn of events that Kentucky has embraced one of its own returning to take over the program about as fully as can be expected under any circumstances.

On Sunday night, Barnhart acknowledged that the realities of the current college basketball landscape — the transfer portal, NIL talks and recruiting windows — make it difficult to sit on your hands and continue too long into the offseason without a head coach.

“You don’t have a lot of time to wait, because the way the portal works and all of those things,” he said. “Obviously that was a part of the realization to where we were and things we had to react to. Lots of emotions, lack of sleep. Proud to be in a really, really cool spot with a guy I’m looking forward to journeying with.”

He noted that the past week or so had been “a blur” for him, too. UK fans can relate.

All told, Kentucky’s job was open for less than three days. When Tubby Smith departed in 2007, the job was open for a little more than two weeks, with much of that time spent waiting for Donovan to wrap up his championship season at Florida before moving on with the search.

Two years later, Donovan was also the focus of UK’s job search before Calipari was hired.

This time, Barnhart didn’t wait around for an answer, which — at the end — might have very well been a third “no” from the same man.

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart smile as Mark Pope speaks at his introductory press conference Sunday in Rupp Arena. Silas Walker/
UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart smile as Mark Pope speaks at his introductory press conference Sunday in Rupp Arena. Silas Walker/

Kentucky hires Mark Pope

What might have appeared in the moment to be a knee-jerk decision by Barnhart was clearly something that had been brewing for quite some time.

The UK athletics director said Sunday night — two days after Pope was officially announced as Kentucky’s coach — that he had paid close attention to the former Wildcat over the course of the past season, specifically.

In its first season as a Big 12 school, BYU was picked in the preseason to finish 13th in the 14-team league. The Cougars ended up fifth, with a 10-8 conference record, good enough for a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“He’s one of ours, so I paid particular attention to him all year long,” Barnhart said. “I watched him. I’ve watched him as a head coach. They went into the Big 12. I can’t speak to the people that vote for the Big 12 Coach of the Year, but I’m not sure anybody deserved it more than him. … Walking into that league and doing what he did.”

Barnhart noted that BYU is a uniquely difficult recruiting destination but that Pope ran a “dynamic” offense that was “fun to watch,” and the new UK coach received high marks for his work on the court, as well as his clear devotion to his alma mater.

“We’ve had a chance to meet a couple times at reunions and things like that. When you talk to him you get a real feel for his love for this institution,” Barnhart said. “I don’t think there’s anything more important at the time in our journey to find somebody that understands this commonwealth, this fan base and our program and what we needed. …

“He checked every box. He knew exactly what we needed and knew exactly the pathway to get it back.”

Pope didn’t need any time to deliberate when he was offered the job Thursday, he said during his introduction in Rupp Arena on Sunday, recalling that Barnhart told him to take a couple of hours to consult with his family.

“We didn’t need it,” Pope said. “He knew I would walk all the way here to take this job.”

But Pope, his wife, Lee Anne, and their four daughters — Ella, Avery, Layla and Shay — sat down as a family to talk it out anyway.

“Layla Pope walks in the door, and I kid you not, her first words were — because she knows the deal — ‘Tell me who’s in the house tonight?! UK!’ She did exactly that, exactly that,” Pope said to cheers from the Rupp crowd. “True story.”

He added that Avery and Shay went hunting in the Pope basement and came back with vintage T-shirts of the 1996 Untouchables team that their dad captained to the national title.

“I don’t know how they did it or where it came from,” he said.

Ella is the oldest of the four Pope girls, all of whom are in their teens to early 20s.

“She knows me the best and my history the best,” Pope said. “And her only question was: ‘Dad, when are we going?’ Of course it was.”

Kentucky’s new coach also introduced his wife, Lee Anne, to the Kentucky fans Sunday night.

“So, if you will stay with me for a second,” he told the crowd. “If you are a mother, and you can imagine all of the pressure and stress that comes with life as a mom. And all of the things that she has to consider every single day. And we sat around the table and got everybody’s reaction. And with all of the burden, with all of the grace and courage and elegance you can imagine, Lee Anne just kind of looked around — across the table — and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Pope was later asked if the decision to pack everything up and move back to Kentucky, where he last played as a Wildcat in 1996 — nearly three decades ago — was really that easy.

“Here is the deal,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with some of the most incredible coaching opportunities in the world. So incredible. I have loved deeply the places I have been able to coach. And since I started coaching, every single person that I know — including my ADs and associate ADs and players — they know that, like, my heart bleeds blue, Kentucky. They just know.

“And Mitch knew that. And, so, I think that’s — maybe he was a little cautious calling me, because he knew I was going to say yes before he even finished the question.”

Pope then acted out such a scenario between him and his new boss.

“Hey, Mark, would you …”

“Yes!” he exclaimed to laughter from the nearly 20,000 that had piled into Rupp Arena.

Pope obviously had the support of his former UK teammates, who came out in force to cheer him on Sunday night. Dozens of other ex-UK players also showed up for the spectacle. One of those players, Rex Chapman, heaped praise on Pope after the ceremony. He spoke so glowingly of the new coach that he was asked whether Pope had been his “first choice” to get the job. Chapman considered the question.

“If you’d have told me Mark was in the mix from day one, I would have been like, ‘Yes, let’s go.’ I mean, you saw this,” he said, gesturing to the building that had just been packed on two-days notice. “I need to say this.”

And then Chapman, with clear delight, noted the blowback he saw on social media and elsewhere in the wake of Pope’s hiring, including harsh criticisms from some people who showed up in Rupp Arena on Sunday after blasting the hire just a couple of days earlier.

“And over the last few days, I’ve had a great time saying, ‘Well, you know what? I kind of like that hire.’ Look around here today,” Chapman said of the fans. “They like the hire, too.”

Over on the other side of the arena, Barnhart had just seen what amounted to a Big Blue revival in the home of Kentucky basketball. He clearly liked the hire, too.

“I thought he knocked it out of the park. He was great. He’s exactly who I thought he would be. He did exactly what I thought he would do. I thought that he was in love with them before he walked in the room.”

Herald-Leader staff writer Jon Hale contributed to this report.

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart introduces new Kentucky men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope in Rupp Arena on Sunday. Silas Walker/
UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart introduces new Kentucky men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope in Rupp Arena on Sunday. Silas Walker/

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