Gordon Monson: BYU’s Mark Pope to Kentucky? Reports say he’s all but gone.

ESPN reports that the Cougars coach is the prime target for one of college basketball’s top jobs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU coach Mark Pope during an NCAA college basketball game against TCU Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Provo, Utah.

It’s long been rumored that Mark Pope wants to use his success at BYU as a springboard to a major college coaching position. He and about two or three hundred other coaches who desire to do the same from wherever they are.

Whoever said, “You are where your feet are,” never coached college hoop.

Well. Coaching the Kentucky Wildcats is considered a major position. It’s one of the most major jobs not just in the college game, but in all of sports.

And reports are surfacing now, after Baylor’s Scott Drew turned down the job, that Kentucky has zeroed in on Pope as its guy. Sources have told ESPN’s Pete Thamel that the deal is being worked on and that it is expected to be worked out in the “near future.”

If so, Pope will replace John Calipari, who ducked out down a back alley a few days ago to Arkansas, where he’ll start with an ascending schedule to make some $38 million over the next five seasons, with all kinds of additional financial provisions to haul in more and stay longer with the Razorbacks, if he so desires. He was scheduled to make even more at Kentucky, with less security. One thing about coaching in Lexington — the burner runs hot. Winning big isn’t anybody’s idea of a suggestion. But Calipari found a way to stay for 15 years before bouncing. He won a national championship there, and made four Final Fours. More than a few had come to doubt whether that was good enough.

It looks as though Pope is on the brink of jumping onto that hot burner.

He played at Kentucky before his run now as BYU’s coach, where he has had ups and downs, but more ups. This past season was particularly impressive, as BYU managed its way through its first season in college basketball’s best league — the Big 12. Most figured the Cougars would be lucky to win three or four conference games. Instead, they finished 10-8 in league and 23-11 overall. Their less-than-stellar showing as a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament, losing in the first round to Duquesne, is a smudge on an otherwise clear season.

If the reports are correct, Kentucky doesn’t care. The Wildcats will care if they go ahead and hire Pope and he repeats those kinds of failures in future tournament games. Conversely, in Lexington, Pope will have every advantage he has lacked at BYU. Recruiting to Provo is tricky business, what with the school’s religious base and its Honor Code and a basketball reputation two or three notches down from Kentucky. Recruiting to Lexington is, or at least should be, a breeze. It’s a place where NBA lottery picks go to polish their games, in certain instances too quickly.

Either way, in that regard, there’s no wonder why he’d want to head east.

The comparison isn’t even fair, BYU measured against a blue-blood.

The only reasons he’d want to stay in Provo are … hmm, there are no reasons.

If one wanted to add remarkable elasticity to the stretch of the imagination for reasons for Pope to stay, it might be that he’s either extremely attached to his Cougar players — OK, let’s all laugh at that one — or he’s found the Lord inside the Marriott Center and BYU’s adjacent practice facility. He outwardly talked religion on occasion this past season, at one point sounding a lot like Bronco Mendenhall. But remember, after all the scriptural talk about the Stripling Warriors, Bronco bounced for a bigger paycheck at Virginia.

The other reason would be the same one LaVell Edwards found for turning down a salary with the Detroit Lions years ago, a salary that would have swamped his pay at BYU. He told me he walked away from the Lions because he didn’t trust his staying power in the NFL. He thought there was a good chance, if his team struggled, even for a short while, that he’d be fired, left to find some unknown position with some other unknown school or team somewhere else.

The problem with that line of thinking now is that generational money — even if it were short of what Calipari was making — is offered at a place like Kentucky, so much so that money would never again be a concern for Pope or his family.

But Pope, like most coaches, doesn’t think that way. He believes so much in himself and his ability to win that were he given the wheel to a race car, or, in this case, the reins to a racehorse, as fast as Kentucky, there’s no way with his self-assigned brilliance and that program’s elite status that he doubts that he’ll flourish. That negativity or realism, whatever it is, doesn’t fit into his brain.

Pope might not shout it into the wind, not yet, but if Kentucky does, in fact, offer, he’d gallop out of town faster than Secretariat at the Belmont.

He’s not where his feet are. He’s where his feet, settled into the stirrups of a lightning-fast racehorse, will take him.

If details don’t get snagged by the devil in the hours ahead, Pope is gone.

He will be if he can be. And it looks as though he can be.