Rick Pitino backs Mark Pope’s hire, says he will ‘go on to greatness’ at Kentucky

Pope’s mentor, and current St. John’s coach, defends Kentucky’s hire, saying Pope’s light resume is in line with Villanova’s Jay Wright and Florida’s Billy Donovan hire.

(Craig Ruttle | AP) St. John's coach Rick Pitino speaks during the Big East NCAA college basketball media day, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Rick Pitino knows better than anyone that BYU coach Mark Pope is an unconventional hire at Kentucky.

Pope has never won an NCAA Tournament game. He’s spent just one season at the high-major level in the Big 12.

But the national championship coach is backing his former player’s hire, and predicting a national title.

“Mark Pope will go on to greatness,” Pitino, now coaching at St. John’s, said in a video message Friday. “You can put it down. ... You have one of the premier young coaches in the game. Relish it, because he will do you proud.”

Pope was a captain for Pitino on Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team. Since then, the two have remained close as Pitino visited Pope in Provo.

Pitino, who coached at Kentucky for almost a decade, said Pope’s resume should not be viewed as a negative.

He cited other coaches on Kentucky’s list, like UConn’s Dan Hurley. He said Hurley had early struggles too in the NCAA Tournament.

“A lot of people out there talk about [former Villanova coach] Jay Wright, Danny Hurley, [former Florida coach] Billy Donovan. They all had their trials and tribulations as well early on,” Pitino said. “But Mark Pope went into the Big 12 this year and beat Kansas at Kansas and beat Baylor at home. And in his first year, got to the NCAA [tournament].”

Pitino praised Pope’s offensive mind. That was Pope’s biggest selling point to Kentucky, as he married his coaching strategy to the modern analytics.

Pitino had a similar story early in his career. He reinvented Providence’s style to get to a Final Four.

“Offensively, no one does it better. The way [Pope’s] teams move. The way they shoot the three,” Pitino said. “The ball movement. The player movement. It’s outstanding.

“What you don’t realize is it took Jay Wright 11 years to finally get an NCAA [tournament] win. Billy Donovan was at Marshall for two years and didn’t have an NCAA appearance. He went on to greatness.”

Pitino also highlighted Pope’s love for Kentucky.

“I couldn’t be any more proud than to see Mark Pope lead the Kentucky Wildcats to another championship,” Pitino finished. “He’ll get it done. He’s got the right stock. He’s got a beautiful family. And he loves, absolutely loves, Kentucky across his chest.

“Get it done, Mark. I love ya. You’ll do a fabulous job.”