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

Cameron Mills was so excited that his dog was peeing in the house. Once the news was official Friday that his former Kentucky teammate Mark Pope would be the next head coach at their alma mater, Mills was bombarded with phone calls and text messages. In the delirium, he neglected to walk the dog on time.

“I can’t hang up,” Mills said. “Our boy got the job and we’re all losing our minds.”

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


On John Calipari’s move to Arkansas, in his own words

“We all knew who we wanted: Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan or Mark Pope,” Mills said. “Obviously we are biased. We were all recruited by Donovan, coached by Pitino and played with Pope. But we didn’t really think that was realistic for any of them. Whether it’s our little Pope, everyone is salivating, because everyone who has trained him or played with him knows what’s coming.

In a broader sense, what’s coming is a reconnection to the rich history and tradition of Kentucky basketball. For all of Calipari’s success during his 15 years at the helm of the program, his image became a bit distorted during his tenure. Whether that was true or not, and Calipari insisted it wasn’t, many fans believed that accumulating NBA draft picks was more important to him than hanging banners. Nine years after the last of them was hoisted into the rafters of Rupp Arena, a growing number of people were wondering if appeasing future professionals took priority over pride in what the program means to so many people at across the state – and across generations.

There will be no doubt about what matters most to Pope, who has always worn the love of his alma mater on his sleeve. Or under his costume. When he couldn’t make it to Lexington for one of the 1996 team meetings because he was busy coaching his BYU team, Pope recorded a video in which he ripped off his shirt and jacket to reveal a complete Kentucky uniform. Then he sang a CATS chant at the top of his lungs and ended with a heartfelt, “I love you guys.” »

“How can this not excite you?” There’s no better person for that than Mark,” said former British star Wayne Turner, a member of the 1996 and 1998 championship teams. “When I came to work after he got the job, a few people shouted 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.

During Calipari’s era, Pitino, his longtime nemesis, was essentially erased in Kentucky. To be fair, he was also the coach of rival Louisville for much of that time. But by extension, Pitino’s great teams, from the 1992 Unforgettables to the 1996 Untouchables, the team that brought life back to a program decimated by NCAA sanctions and the team that officially put the Cats back on top of basketball academic, have also been minimized.

“It’s nothing against Calipari at all, but I think we all 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 have a guy coming in here who comes from the Pitino tree and, while he’s probably not going to cuss like Coach, he’s going to coach with the same level of intensity and enthusiasm. That’s how 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 would reconnect Kentucky to its former glory came almost immediately after the announcement. From his office in St. John’s, Pitino recorded a video congratulating his former captain and assuring UK fans that Pope will “continue to greatness.” Later that day, Pitino called into a Lexington radio show and said he was so proud of Pope that he would write a check to help fund the Wildcats’ name, image and likeness.

“I can guarantee you one thing: Nobody, nobody embodies the name Kentucky on the front of the jersey like Mark Pope,” Pitino said in his video. “You have one of the best young coaches in the game. Savor him, because he will make you proud.”

Some wonder if the Wildcats jumped the gun by 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 protégé and former UK assistant who won two titles at Florida and now coaches the Chicago Bulls, would have had to wait much longer with no guarantee he would take the job. In fact, he had already refused it twice.

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 never won a state tournament game. NCAA. His supporters point out that Kentucky is not BYU and that it now has nearly unlimited resources, a blue-blooded brand behind it and none of the admissions challenges that limited its recruiting options at the last stop.

“Hurley’s winning percentage before UConn was 59 percent. Sometimes a great coach just needs great resources, great fans, great tradition of a great program to become a Hall of Fame coach,” Mills said. “I get people questioning the hire, but in a few weeks, in a few months, when they see who he is, he’ll start to win over the doubters pretty quickly. Because he’s the guy that outplayed everyone, outplayed everyone, whether it was scouting reports or school. He’s not the guy you run through a brick wall for; he’s 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 on the 1996 team, clearly remembers two things about Pope. First, he and his roommate Jeff Sheppard would hop on their bikes and ride absurd distances together — sometimes to Frankfurt or London, Kentucky, and back — just to clear their minds and stay focused amid the chaos that comes with playing basketball. -Kentucky ball. Second, when the other players on the team were down, they would go to Pope for a pick-me-up.

“He was very positive and optimistic all the time, and he let you know everything was going to be okay. When Pope said that, you believed him,” Epps said. “He was like everyone’s big brother, and now our brother is the big brother in the UK. Since he has always been there for us, it is time for not only his former teammates but also the entire Big Blue Nation to support him and believe that he will get us back to where we want to go. He will tell you that Kentucky basketball changed his life, and I can tell you that he will coach with so much passion and give everything he can to give back to this place.

Outside of the Pope family, no one is happier about his new job than Sheppard, who lived with him for two years during college. “It’s almost obnoxious the amount of energy he brings into a room,” Sheppard said. The positive word will be the one said most often about Pope, Sheppard predicted, because he radiates joy. His second 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 of the basketball virus.

“He’s always looking to grow and learn and master his craft,” Sheppard said. “It’s very important in today’s college basketball environment because this thing is an ever-changing target. What worked well before is just a different game now. Of course, he is linked to our past, but he always thinks about the future. That’s one of the reasons I know he’ll be successful, because he’s determined to put all the pieces together around him – to put the players together, to put the coaches together, to put the administration together, to put the the university, to bring the state together – to make this happen. That’s why I’m happy to help him.

“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 to support him in any way I can.

The easiest way, of course, would be to tell his son, national freshman Reed Sheppard, to wait until the NBA draft and play one more year at Kentucky for his old roommate. Unfortunately for Pope, Sheppard is a top-10 pick, and that’s likely going to prove too hard to pass up. If it was another player from another program, there wouldn’t even be a decision to make.

But Jeff Sheppard said: “We’re open to anything. Mark and I have already had a few conversations and Reed is still making this decision. There is considerable interest from the NBA right now, so we need to listen to that. There is also considerable interest from Kentucky fans, which makes things difficult. This makes things very difficult.

It’s still a long way off, but Pope has something going for him. When he was an assistant coach at Georgia and the Bulldogs were playing at Kentucky, Pope stopped by the Sheppard house. Reed was only 7 years old at the time, which was far from a real prospect, but Pope told him to never forget who made his first recruiting visit home.

Neither of them could have imagined then where they would both be right now, their lifelong dreams coming true in the same place and at the same time. For a star player, a program and his new coach, things have come full circle.

“It’s not just about the 1996 team. It’s about all the former players — and everyone born into Kentucky basketball,” Mills said. “It’s, ‘Hey, this is our guy, and our guy just got the job.'”

The morning it was official, Pope sent a message to the 1996 focus group. He told them he needed it as much now as he did then. (Many of them plan to attend his public presentation Sunday afternoon at Rupp Arena.) He told them the only way this will work is if his former teammates are all-in with him. He told them he couldn’t wait to get home.

“The last thing he wrote,” Mills said, “was preparing us to run behind him through another brick wall: Let’s do it.” This got me. Yes, we’ve done that before. Let’s do it again.

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

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