Patrick Kinahan: Don't blame Pope leaving BYU for going home to dream job

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PROVO — As we were saying earlier this week, Mark Pope deserves to interview for the head coaching position at Kentucky. And if the interview was granted, the charismatic BYU coach would turn on the charm.

Well guess what all you naysayers? Negotiations were wrapped up Thursday night with Pope agreeing to become the coach at Kentucky, historically one of the greatest programs in college basketball.

Originally down the list of candidates, Pope worked his way up the ladder as multiple high-profile coaches turned down the job or an opportunity to interview for it. Say what you want about him, and opinions on him vary, but one thing is clear: He can sell himself and his visions as well as any coach in the business.

Think about it: Kentucky is entrusting its program, which has a rabid fan base that ranks with any in all of sports, to a coach with no NCAA Tournament success. He got there twice with BYU, losing both times, including last month in a stunning upset to Duquesne as a No. 6 seed.

Without a big-time track record, Pope won over the Wildcats with his never-ceasing enthusiasm and exuberance. He can also mix in a combination of honesty and humility that will — eventually, at least — endear him to skeptical Kentucky supporters.

None of the other possibilities, no matter how many conference or national championships each has, can claim they are a Wildcat. Pope, who played on Kentucky's national championship team in 1996, can break out the legitimate assertion that he's coming home to his dream job.

History will show Pope was a good coach at BYU, winning at least 20 games in all but one of his five seasons. Last season was arguably his best in leading the Cougars to a surprising 23-11 record in the program's inaugural Big 12 season.

But he never was a true-blue Cougar in the manner BYU fans cherish. Right from the start, as with dozens of coaches in the college game, Pope had his eye on bigger prizes.

He was interested in multiple jobs during his time at BYU, not taking away anything with his commitment to stay in the present. The only way to move up the food chain is to win in the moment.

Forget about casting any aspersions at Pope for leaving BYU. He didn't want to join the program coming out of high school in the Seattle area, where he played for the University of Washington as a freshman, and then a year later when he transferred to Kentucky.

BYU officials knew what they were getting with Pope the day he was hired. And he fulfilled his commitment to them.

The task now for athletic director Tom Holmoe is to act fast in finding Pope's replacement. The current climate of the transfer portal demands BYU hire a coach in one week or less.

Not to say Pope is easily replaceable, but the more important factor is getting a coach in place quickly to allow him the opportunity to retain as much of the roster as possible. BYU is expected to field a top-25 team next season, provided the bulk of the talent doesn't transfer.

Following the lead of former Utah athletic director Chris Hill, who was always evaluating potential coaches, Holmoe owed it to the program to be prepared for Pope's departure.

To BYU's benefit, in keeping with the unwritten rule that high-profile coaches be active in the sponsored church's faith, the pool of candidates is shallow. Mark Madsen, who succeeded Pope at Utah Valley and recently finished his first season at Cal, is the only head coach in college that meets BYU's ecclesiastical requirement.

But Madsen quickly put an end to that possibility with a statement of commitment to Cal on social media platform X Friday morning.

"We love Cal and the Bay Area. We are excited and fully committed for the future here at Cal. … We are building something special," Madsen said, in part. "We will win. We will continue to send players to the NBA. 'The Haas of Pain' will be in full effect with rabid students and fans."

Other LDS assistant coaches are scattered throughout the game. Perhaps the best choice is Chris Burgess, a dynamic recruiter who worked under Pope at Utah Valley and BYU and is currently an assistant at Utah.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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