BYU coach Mark Pope reacts to Rick Pitino’s unexpected tweet

Pope, who won a national title playing for Pitino, has BYU on the edge of an NCAA Tournament appearance.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Noah Waterman (0), Mark Pope, and Brigham Young Cougars forward Fousseyni Traore (45) celebrate the win as BYU hosts Baylor, NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Provo • Minutes after BYU knocked off No. 11 Baylor, all but securing an NCAA Tournament appearance, Rick Pitino authored a message of support for his former player.

“So proud n happy for BYU coach Mark Pope,” Pitino wrote on social media. “... Our captain of one of the greatest college teams ever assembled - 1996 Champions!!! We love you Mark, so happy for you!!”

Pope saw the tweet as he looked over the stat sheet. And when he walked into the back hallway of the Marriott Center, with his family by his side, the meaning of it hit him.

“It is really sweet to me. I love that man,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Like, he changed me as a person. I don’t know — he doesn’t hand out compliments all the time.”

A 78-71 win over the Bears was a milestone for Pope in several ways. Now at 19 wins, it was the marquee victory his Cougars needed to lock in a spot in the field of 68. It would be BYU’s first tournament appearance in three years.

It was also proof that BYU belongs in its new conference. Pope spent the last two years trying to remake his program into a Big 12 contender. Now at 7-6 in the league, BYU has knocked off Iowa State and Baylor along the way.

The praise from Pitino cemented the moment for Pope.

“Clearly he is one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Pope said.

Pope played for Pitino at Kentucky from 1993-96. In his final year, the Wildcats won the national championship. The center played 36 games, starting six, and averaged close to eight points per game.

Since then, Pitino has been in touch with the BYU coach in the last few years.

“He actually came out here and spent a couple of days with me and my family,” Pope said. “He has been so generous and so kind.”

Pope’s wife, Lee Anne, echoed that. She said Pitito supported Pope as a player and coach. “We love him,” she said.

When Pope retreated away for the night, shaking hands with Baylor coach Scott Drew, he gave a final thought on Pitino.

“He has given me a gift that is super unique,” he said. “There are not many people who change you as a human being. He’s changed me as a human being.”