It was an underwhelming text to send.

A few days ago, my brother and I again were discussing Kentucky’s options to replace John Calipari. He’s a UK fan who lives in Lexington and I, well, do this. Our exchange was on the heels of Calipari’s stunning move to Arkansas becoming official.

All of the names you’d expect to come up came up, along with a few others. Dan Hurley, Nate Oats, Scott Drew, Billy Donovan, etc. We mentioned Iowa State coach TJ Otzelberger, Illinois coach Brad Underwood and Bruce Pearl, though we both agreed it didn’t make as much sense to pursue the 64-year-old Auburn coach. The same was true for the polarizing, but ever-popular former UK coach Rick Pitino, who will turn 72 years old by the time the 2024-25 season begins.

Then came the underwhelming text I sent him.

“Mark Pope from BYU is an interesting one.”

In the days since that Tuesday afternoon text, other words have been used to describe Pope, many of which aren’t appropriate for this family-friendly website. The most appropriate one for Pope after Kentucky announced his hiring Friday to become its next basketball coach is obvious.


It’s perfectly fair to call Pope an underwhelming hire. A search that some hoped would end with UK landing either the guy who just repeated (Hurley) or the other guy who repeated in the 21st century (Donovan) instead ended with a guy who has never won an NCAA Tournament … game. As a coach, anyway.

Yeah, that’s an incredibly underwhelming move by Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart, especially given the second-to-none resources that are available in Lexington both from an NIL standpoint and a completed $310 million Rupp Arena renovation standpoint. To think that job went to Pope instead of waiting out Donovan’s NBA season or throwing a bunch of money at a more established coach like Underwood or Otzelberger is wild. Hence, the outrage to initial reports that he was the guy.

But dare I say, we should separate “underwhelming” and “destined to fail.”

Let’s be clear. If Pope isn’t a former UK captain who played under Pitino — his 1996 UK team actually beat Calipari’s UMass team in the Final Four en route to the national title — he doesn’t get that phone call. Honestly, Pope’s UK background might be the only thing standing in the way of this being a full Greg Schiano-Tennessee situation.

Barnhart might be public enemy No. 1 right now, but it doesn’t change the previous 3 weeks. Calipari admitted that things had run their course at UK. Barnhart somehow got to move on from a coach he wasn’t aligned with while avoiding the $33 million buyout. That’s a win.

It’s still a win because instead of getting top donors to foot that bill, they can instead focus their efforts on footing the bill to build Pope’s program. Despite what the internet might’ve told you the past 24 hours, there will be momentum to do just that.

Calipari claimed at his Arkansas introductory press conference that he had to take care of NIL himself at Kentucky. What he conveniently left out was that his damaged relationships with boosters caused that.

This era of recruiting is different from the 1-and-done era that Calipari ushered in. Pope will have to show he can do that at an elite level to win over his skeptics.

But let’s be honest. The best way to win over skeptics is by winning basketball games, no matter what that recruiting class ranking finishes at. Calipari signed the No. 1, No. 2, No. 6 and No. 1 classes in the 2020s, yet he had just 1 single NCAA Tournament victory to show for it. That’s demeanor. That’s scheme.

Pope can be an instant upgrade in those 2 areas. Basketball people will tell you that Pope has some Oats-like tendencies with the offense he runs. BYU was No. 2 in America with 32 3-point attempts per game. That was 2 more than Alabama. No, they didn’t necessarily operate with the Tide’s tempo, but the ideas were similar. Get 5 guys on the court who can shoot, pass and dribble. Seven of BYU’s 8 players who averaged 18 minutes shot at least 92 3-pointers in 2023-24.

All of that frustration about Calipari’s dated offense, which made significant improvements in 2023-24 but was still clearly ineffective when it counted, could fade with 1 season of Pope.

There’s another element to this that some on the outside might be overlooking. Calipari’s disconnect not only from the boosters but the fan base as a whole became a constant topic of conversation. The fact that he was reportedly surprised by the fan outrage after the Oakland debacle was telling.

Call me crazy, but a former UK captain from a national championship team might just have a better feel for how to navigate those waters than Calipari did.

That doesn’t mean Pope will be more successful, nor does it mean that his approval rating will ever peak at the levels that Calipari’s did in the mid-2010s. It could, however, mean that Pope could be better prepared to handle both success and failure in a place like Lexington.

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The bar for the hire itself might’ve been high, but it’s easy to forget how low the bar for Pope to exceed is. Let’s say he keeps a few UK starters on board for another season and the 2024-25 squad reaches the Sweet 16. That would mark the best UK season in 6 years.

So much of the angst in the past week came from UK’s desire to win this breakup. In the court of public opinion, Barnhart’s hire didn’t do that. Instead of making a post-Calipari splash, he opted for a pencil dive by hiring Pope (it’s ironic considering that Barnhart’s hiring of Calipari in 2009 was as splashy as it gets). But replacing Calipari was never going to be about winning the press conference, and fan support for this new era won’t come down to how well-known the candidate is, even if there’s a bit of confirmation bias that’ll show if Pope struggles out of the gate.

The UK job is demanding but simple — win basketball games when it counts or find somebody else who will. Barnhart staked his future on Pope doing that. Whether that decision was made because of how different Barnhart’s relationship with Pope figures to be compared to his relationship with Calipari is somewhat irrelevant.

It is indeed interesting that Barnhart opted for such an underwhelming route when all signs suggested that wouldn’t be the case. There’s nothing wrong with that being the takeaway.

Just don’t confuse being underwhelmed with being convinced that the path to success is blocked before Pope makes his return to Lexington.

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