Kentucky moved quickly to hire Mark Pope but Wildcats fans will need some convincing it was the right move

When news started circulating Sunday that John Calipari was nearing a deal to be the next coach at Arkansas, Kentucky fans celebrated on social media and seemed largely thrilled to be getting the change in leadership they desperately wanted after another disappointing exit from the NCAA Tournament.

Four nights later, those same folks were melting down.

Mark Pope?

Yes, Mark Pope.

After missing on UConn’s Dan Hurley and Baylor’s Scott Drew, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart quickly turned his attention to BYU’s Mark Pope. They reached an agreement Thursday night, announced their agreement Friday morning. And though UK fans might grow to love the move in time, there’s no denying the news was initially met with equal parts of confusion and disappointment, presumably because when you run off a Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach with six Final Four appearances and the 2012 national championship on his resume, you just don’t expect to end up replacing him with someone who has never won a conference championship or even a single NCAA Tournament game.

UK fans had bigger dreams.

And I’d be lying if I said I don’t understand their frustration. No, Dan Hurley was never exiting UConn after back-to-back national championships. And I’m not surprised that, in the end, Scott Drew just couldn’t pull the trigger and leave the Baylor program he built from nothing. So I don’t think it’s reasonable to be frustrated that Barnhart couldn’t land either of those coaches. But there’s a big gap between where this search started and where it ended. And, frankly, any fanbase would be frustrated to watch a search close with the hiring of a man who was really only a candidate because he wore the jersey three decades earlier (Pope) when it began with hopes of either hiring the man who won the 2021 NCAA Tournament (Drew) or the man who won the 2023 and 2024 NCAA Tournaments (Hurley).

But none of that matters now.

What’s done is done. Mark Pope is the new coach at Kentucky, and if the first few hundred words of this column have led you to think that I believe this will go poorly, let me spend the final few hundred words of this column making it clear that I don’t really believe that at all.

Honestly, I have no idea.

At this point, I’ve been doing this long enough where I’ve watched coaching hires I thought were great go terribly and coaching hires I thought were terrible go well. Anybody speaking definitively, positively or negatively, about the future before Pope is even formally introduced is being silly. None of us have any idea.

If Pope comes in and convinces Reed Sheppard to return for his sophomore season, lures a few big pieces from the transfer portal and adds a five-star prospect or two, Barnhart will look like a genius for pivoting to Pope and handing over the reins of one of college basketball’s biggest jobs to an alum. However, if Pope comes in and struggles, especially while Calipari flourishes at Arkansas, this will be labeled a failed experiment that likely leads to Kentucky officials nudging Barnhart into retirement.

Everything’s on the table. Everybody knows the stakes.

As for what’s next, I suspect UK fans will mostly start talking themselves into this hire after the initial disappointment subsides, fill Rupp Arena on Sunday for Pope’s introductory press conference, rally around one of their own and give him every opportunity to succeed. Then we’ll see how it goes, just like always.

Could UK have hired somebody more proven?

Yes, definitely.

But if Mark Pope does enough early to suggest he really is fit for the job, any skepticism UK fans have now will quickly be replaced with unbridled excitement. That is, after all, always how these things go because it never matters what you were when you were hired as much as it matters what you do once you are.

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