Kentucky Settling for Mark Pope Proves Basketball Coaching Landscape Has Changed

The Wildcats boast tradition and money but swung and missed on their big targets.
Pope is likely the next head coach at Kentucky.
Pope is likely the next head coach at Kentucky. / Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

At least in the coaching carousel, the term “blue blood” has never meant less.

That’s the only logical conclusion one can draw from the Kentucky Wildcats’ rapid-fire search to replace John Calipari, who shocked the college basketball world earlier this week by fleeing Lexington for the Arkansas Razorbacks job. Big, bad Kentucky, one of the most tradition-rich teams and potentially the most financially rich program in big-time college basketball, swung and missed at its big targets and landed on a coach who has never won a men’s NCAA tournament game. 

There are many positive things that can be said about reported new Wildcats head coach Mark Pope. He’s without question a sharp basketball mind, building one of the more intricate offenses in the country with the BYU Cougars. He coached the Cougars to three top-20 KenPom finishes in five years, two more than Calipari coached Kentucky to in that period (though that may say more about Calipari than Pope, in this conversation). He has won at a place with as limited a recruiting pool as any in Division I, a feat even more impressive after BYU’s move to the Big 12 in 2023–24, He was an excellent player in Lexington, part of the 1996 national championship team that is royalty in town forever. Pope was likely due for a better job than the one he had at BYU. 

But Kentucky? The same Kentucky that, not 12 hours before news of this hire broke, was rumored to be throwing around $100 million to try to sway two-time defending national champion Dan Hurley from the UConn Huskies to Lexington? A program that essentially ran Calipari, a title-winning coach who has taken three schools to Final Fours and produced more pros than anyone in college basketball over the last decade, out of town? Kentucky prides itself on being bigger, better and more serious about basketball than anyone else and wants to hire … BYU’s coach, who has advanced in the NCAA tournament as many times as this writer has? 

Scott Drew chose to stay at Baylor instead of making the jump to Kentucky.
Scott Drew chose to stay at Baylor instead of making the jump to Kentucky. / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Each coach who deflected interest in this job (Hurley, Scott Drew and Nate Oats) may have had his own reasons for doing so. Hurley made clear Monday night after winning title No. 2 that his wife had no desire to leave the Northeast, and Drew’s family and roots in Waco, Texas, were reportedly the reasons he walked away from a potential deal. But if there’s ever an illustration that the gap between the purported elite jobs and the rest of the sport, it’s that coaches from Alabama, Baylor and a Big East program in UConn rebuffed KENTUCKY of all places to stay where they’re at. 

Kentucky had long seemed like the last bastion for a “name” hire in an era that has seen huge coaching jobs go to relatively inexperienced choices. The Louisville Cardinals, in three years, have hired one coach with no head coaching experience in Kenny Payne and another from a mid-major with no tournament wins in Pat Kelsey. The Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels were forced into internal hires in Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, with the jury still out on both. The Villanova Wildcats hired Kyle Neptune off one season with the Fordham Rams, with results not promising so far. The Florida Gators hired Todd Golden, who went 23–22 in the WCC as the head coach with the San Francisco Dons. Even the flashier names, like the Georgetown Hoyas reeling in Ed Cooley or the Maryland Terrapins landing Kevin Willard, came with the caveat that neither had advanced past the Sweet 16 in their head coaching careers. Eric Musselman and Calipari set off dominos with their lateral-ish moves this cycle, but both seemed to be getting out ahead of disgruntled fan bases. 

In the NIL era, where the primary barrier to entry to recruit top talent is “how big a check can you write?”, the advantage of being at a blue blood has dissipated some. Talent is more spread out, football powerhouses across the SEC can find a few bucks to throw at basketball and you can win almost as much as you would at Kentucky without living in the fishbowl that is Lexington. 

Does this mean Pope won’t win at Kentucky? Of course not. A good coach can be a “bad” hire. Perhaps the best way of putting this is to call it a risky hire. The “blue blood” label used to offer you a level of security that you’d be able to hire one of the premier candidates on the coaching market. That’s not a guarantee of success, but it’d be a lot easier to bet on Kentucky succeeding at the level its fans expect under a coach like Drew, who has won a title and consistently earned top-three NCAA tournament seeds, than it is with Pope. He may soar, using the strengths of the UK job to his advantage to build the elite teams he never could with the limitations of BYU and the Utah Valley Wolverines. But he also may fail, and there’s little doubt SEC coaches will sleep better tonight knowing the league’s top program is coached by Mark Pope, not Calipari, Drew, Oats or Hurley. 

If nothing else, the Pope hire won’t win the news conference for Kentucky. He could win over much of the Kentucky faithful early on by successfully coaxing star guard Reed Sheppard (whose father, Jeff, played with Pope on the 1996 title team) to return for his sophomore season. Even then, there will certainly be skeptics. 

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart is staking his legacy at the school on a largely unproven coach. A program of Kentucky’s stature should have landed a bigger name than Mark Pope, and the fact that it didn’t says everything about the coaching market in 2024. 

Kevin Sweeney


Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).