BIG NEWS: Mark Pope Is Our Pride Most Happiest Era UK Prime Minister RT Rishi Sunak MP Reveals

Career timeline: New University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach Mark Pope played two years for the Cats before playing in the NBA for 6 seasons. He has coached since 2009 at Georgia, Wake Forest, Utah Valley and BYU.

As the new head coach of the Kentucky basketball program, one of Mark Pope’s biggest appeals to UK fans is his status as a former player.

And Pope isn’t just any old ex-Cat: He was a beloved captain on Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team, and played two seasons for UK after transferring from Washington and sitting out the 1993-94 season.

This past, and the intrinsic understanding of Kentucky basketball culture that comes with it, has proved to be a big hit with fans since Pope was hired April 12 to replace longtime head coach John Calipari, who coached the Wildcats for the past 15 seasons.

Last month, Pope’s official introduction as UK basketball coach came in front of a packed Rupp Arena, as supporters traveled far and wide to welcome Pope back to the Bluegrass in a coaching capacity.

During his first media session as Kentucky’s basketball coach — which also occurred during that Rupp Arena gathering — Pope played up his status as a former UK basketball standout.

Pope recounted the two free throws he made with a little more than a minute to go in the 1996 national championship game win over Syracuse, points that helped put the game on ice for the Wildcats.

“The only meaningful play I made in my entire career, they were pushing the ball down the floor and I trip and fall and it is deflected and they give me a foul,” Pope playfully recounted.

“… I was not thinking about form or team or celebration or score, I literally was walking, and I promise this is true, the only thought that came into my mind is, ‘If I don’t make this they are going to kill me!’” Pope said of those free throw attempts. “And who wants that? That is why we are here, guys. That is what we do.”


Plenty of college basketball coaches boast past NBA experience. Pope is among that group, having played 153 career games in the Association with the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets.

Even more college coaches hold high-level college basketball playing experience. Pope split his four seasons of college ball evenly between Washington and Kentucky, not counting the season he spent in Lexington redshirting before he could suit up for Rick Pitino.

But precious few college basketball coaches boast the kind of championship experience as a college player that Pope spoke of during his Rupp Arena introduction.

Of the more than 350 head coaches in NCAA Division I men’s basketball for the 2024-25 season, Pope is part of an exclusive group of coaches to have won an NCAA Division I championship as a player.

Only seven men hold that distinction: Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley (a two-time national champion with Duke in 1991 and 1992), Cincinnati’s Wes Miller (who won the 2005 national championship with North Carolina), Duke’s Jon Scheyer (who won a national title with the Blue Devils in 2010), Howard’s Kenny Blakeney (who played on Duke’s 1992 national title team), Nevada’s Steve Alford (a 1987 national champion at Indiana), Siena’s Gerry McNamara (a 2003 national champion at Syracuse) and Pope.

This means that, unlike most of his coaching peers, Pope has first-hand experience with what it takes to win at the highest-level of college basketball as a player.

And this could set him up with a distinct recruiting advantage as he pitches prospects on coming to Kentucky.

“I know he was in my shoes one time,” Jasper Johnson — a five-star class of 2025 guard and one of UK’s top recruiting targets — said this month.

“He played there, so knowing he understands the game and that he believes in his players as well. I know he’ll have a big difference being in the SEC. … But I feel like (UK will) have a good season this season.”

Of course, this championship experience as a college player is not a certainty for future coaching success.

Even in just the last few years, several college coaches who won big as a player have seen their coaching careers flame out: Maryland’s Juan Dixon (Coppin State), Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing (who coached his alma mater), Arizona’s Josh Pastner (Memphis and Georgia Tech) and Kentucky’s own Steve Masiello (Manhattan) can be counted among this group.

But Johnson, as well as other top college basketball recruits, clearly see value in Pope having been there and done that as a player at UK.

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