Mark Pope connects Kentucky’s past and present: ‘There is no better person for this’


Cameron Mills was so excited, his dog peed in the house. Once the news was official on Friday that his old Kentucky teammate, Mark Pope, would be the next head coach of their alma mater, Mills was bombarded by phone calls and text messages. In the delirium, he neglected to take the dog for a walk in time.

“I can’t get off the phone,” Mills said. “Our boy got the job, and we’re all kind of losing our minds.”

Mills and his teammates from the 1996 national championship squad have a group-text thread together, and it’s been lit up since John Calipari’s shocking departure for Arkansas was first reported a week ago.

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“We all knew who we wanted: Rick Pitino or Billy Donovan or Mark Pope,” Mills said. “Obviously, we’re biased. We all got recruited by Donovan, coached by Pitino and played with Pope. But we didn’t think it was realistic for any of them, really. For it to be our boy Pope, everybody is salivating, because everybody that coached him or played with him knows what’s coming.”

In the broader sense, what’s coming is a reconnection to the rich history and tradition of Kentucky basketball. For all Calipari’s success in 15 years leading the program, its image became a bit distorted during his tenure. Whether true or not, and Calipari insisted it wasn’t, many fans felt like accumulating NBA Draft picks was more important to him than hanging banners. In nine years since the last one of those was hoisted to Rupp Arena’s rafters, a growing number wondered whether placating future pros took priority over pride in what the program means to so many across the state — and across generations.

There will be no question what matters most to Pope, who has always worn the love for his alma mater on his sleeve. Or under his suit. When he couldn’t make it to Lexington for one of the ’96 team reunions, because he was busy coaching his BYU team, Pope recorded a video in which he ripped off his dress shirt and jacket to reveal a full Kentucky uniform. Then he belted out a C-A-T-S chant at the top of his lungs and finished with a heartfelt, “I love you guys.”

“How can that not excite you? There is no better person for this than Mark,” said former UK star Wayne Turner, a member of the 1996 and 1998 title teams. “When I walked into work after he got the job, I had a few people hollering at me, ‘Mark Pope! Mark Pope! Mark Pope!’ I was just pumping my fists, like, ‘Let’s go!’ What a great day for the program.”

In the Calipari era, Pitino, his longtime nemesis, was essentially erased at Kentucky. To be fair, he was also the coach of rival Louisville for a lot of that time. But by extension, Pitino’s great teams, from the 1992 Unforgettables to the ’96 Untouchables, the team that breathed life back into a program decimated by NCAA sanctions and the one that officially put the Cats back on top of college basketball, were also minimized.

“It’s nothing against Calipari at all, but I think all of us know what we did in the ’90s was special,” Mills said. “We know why we were able to do it, and his name is Rick Pitino. So now you’ve got a guy coming in here who is from the Pitino tree and, while he’s probably not going to cuss like Coach cusses, he’s going to coach with the same level of intensity and enthusiasm. That’s the way he played, and there’s a whole generation of fans who probably don’t know that about Mark. But the state is about to fall in love with him again.”

The ultimate signal that Pope’s hiring will reconnect Kentucky to its old glory came almost immediately after the announcement. From his office at St. John’s, Pitino recorded a video congratulating his former captain and assuring UK fans that Pope will “go on to greatness.” Later in the day, Pitino called in to a Lexington radio show and said he was so proud of Pope that he’d sign a check to help fund the Wildcats’ name, image and likeness collective.

“I can guarantee you one thing: Nobody, nobody epitomizes the name Kentucky on the front of the jersey like Mark Pope,” Pitino said in his video. “You have one of the premier young coaches in the game. Relish it, because he will do you proud.”

Some have questioned whether the Wildcats jumped the gun bringing in Pope now — and so quickly after Calipari’s departure — instead of trying harder to land a bigger name and more accomplished coach. But Alabama’s Nate Oats, Baylor’s Scott Drew and Connecticut’s Dan Hurley all said no. Donovan, Pitino’s protege and former UK assistant who won two titles at Florida and now coaches the Chicago Bulls, would’ve required a much longer wait with no guarantee he’d take the job. He had, in fact, turned it down twice previously.

The 51-year-old Pope, meanwhile, won 25 games in his fourth season at Utah Valley and won 68 percent of his games in five years at BYU, but he’s never won an NCAA Tournament game. His supporters point out that Kentucky is not BYU, and now he has nearly unlimited resources, a blue-blooded brand name behind him and none of the admissions challenges that limited his recruiting options at the last stop.

“Hurley’s winning percentage before UConn was 59 percent. Sometimes a great coach just needs the great resources, the great fans, the great tradition of a great program to become a Hall of Fame coach,” Mills said. “I get the people who are questioning the hire, but in a few weeks, in a few months, when they see who he is, he’ll start winning over the doubters pretty quickly. Because this is the guy who outworked everybody, who out-studied everybody, whether we’re talking scouting reports or school. This isn’t the guy you run through a brick wall for; this is the guy you follow after he’s already run through the brick wall for you. He’s the Kool-Aid Man.”

Anthony Epps, starting point guard for the 1996 team, remembers two things clearly about Pope. First, that he and roommate Jeff Sheppard would hop on their bicycles and ride absurd distances together — sometimes to Frankfort or London, Ky., and back — just to clear their minds and stay focused amid the chaos that comes with Kentucky basketball. Second, that when other players on the team were down, they went to Pope for a pick-me-up.

“He was so positive and upbeat all the time, and he’d let you know everything was going to be OK. When Pope said that, you believed him,” Epps said. “He was like everybody’s big brother, and now our brother is in the big seat at UK. The way he was always there for us, it’s time for not only his old teammates but the whole Big Blue Nation to get behind him and trust that he’s going to get us back where we want to go. He’ll tell you that Kentucky basketball changed his life, and I can tell you he’s going to coach with so much passion and give everything he can to give back to this place.”

Outside of the Pope family, nobody is happier about his new job than Sheppard, who lived with him for two years in college. “It’s almost obnoxious how much energy he brings to a room,” Sheppard said. The word positive will be the one repeated most often about Pope, Sheppard predicted, because he radiates joy. His next most important trait is a thirst for knowledge, which isn’t surprising for a guy who was a Rhodes Scholarship candidate and went to medical school at Columbia before realizing he couldn’t shake the basketball bug.

“He’s always looking to grow and learn and master his craft,” Sheppard said. “That’s so important in today’s college basketball environment, because this thing is a constantly moving target. What used to work well, it’s just a different game now. So sure, he’s a connection to our past, but he’s always thinking about the future. That’s one of the reasons I know he’ll be successful, because he’s committed to putting all the pieces around him — to bring players together, bring coaches together, bring the administration together, bring the university together, bring the state together — to make this happen. That’s what I’m excited to help him with.

“I don’t know what my role will be. It won’t be on the bench, but I’m ready to do my part from the row right behind the bench, right there supporting him in any way that I can.”

The easiest way, of course, would be to tell his son, national freshman of the year Reed Sheppard, to hold off on the NBA Draft and play one more year at Kentucky for his old roommate. Unfortunately for Pope, Sheppard is a projected top-10 pick, and that’s probably going to prove too hard to pass up. If it were any other player at any other program, there wouldn’t even be a decision to be made.

But, Jeff Sheppard said, “We’re open for everything. Mark and I have had some conversations already, and Reed is still in the process of making that decision. There’s considerable interest right now from the NBA, so we have to listen to that. There’s also considerable interest from the fans at Kentucky, so that makes it hard. That makes it very difficult.”

It’s still a long shot, but Pope does have one thing going for him. When he was an assistant coach at Georgia and the Bulldogs played at Kentucky, Pope stopped by the Sheppard house. Reed was only 7 years old at the time, far from an actual prospect, but Pope told him never to forget who made his first in-home recruiting visit.

Neither of them could have imagined then where they’d both be right now, lifelong dreams coming true at the same place and time. For a star player, a program and its new coach, everything has come full circle.

“This isn’t just about the ’96 team. This is about all the ex-players — and all the people who were born into Kentucky basketball,” Mills said. “This is, ‘Hey, he’s our guy, and our guy just got the job.’”

On the morning it was official, Pope sent a message to the 1996 group chat. He told them he needs them now just as much as back then. (Many of them plan to be at his public introduction Sunday afternoon at Rupp Arena.) He told them the only way this works is if his former teammates are all-in with him. He told them he couldn’t wait to come home.

“The last thing he wrote,” Mills said, “had us ready to run behind him through another brick wall: Let’s do this. That got me. Yeah, we’ve done this before. Let’s do this again.”

(Photo of Mark Pope, center, and Kentucky teammates cheering during the 1996 Midwest Regional final: Jim Mone / AP)





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