Thousands of Kentucky fans welcome Mark Pope home to Rupp Arena — and turn the page on John Calipari

Thousands of Kentucky fans welcome Mark Pope home to Rupp Arena — and turn the page on John Calipari

Kentucky fans are ready to move on from John Calipari.

Witness the scene at Rupp Arena on Sunday.

A throng of Big Blue Nation faithful filled the stands to greet new head coach Mark Pope, a UK alum and captain of the 1996 national championship team who returned to Lexington after a five-year run of making BYU basketball relevant. When Pope arrived via police motorcycle escort from the Kentucky team bus, he did so alongside other members of the 1996 national championship team with trophy in hand.

The crowd went wild.

The scene was reminiscent of one in 1996 when Pope — alongside then-head coach Rick Pitino, teammates Tony Delk, Antoine Walker and others — returned triumphantly home to Rupp Arena with the program's sixth NCAA championship.

But Sunday was no celebration of a championship. It was a news conference.

Mark Pope wasn’t Kentucky’s first choice. But for the fans packing the stands at Rupp Arena Sunday, he was the right choice. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Like that spring day in 1996, Pope took the microphone to address a crowd of roughly 20,000 fans.

"I would say I’m someone that loves Kentucky from the depths of my soul, loves the game from the depths of my soul, loves my family and am a believer and loves God from the depths of my soul," Pope said. "That is who I am."

He made clear that he understands the expectations.

"Every coach in America at every other job in America stands up at the press conference and they try and moderate expectations," Pope said. "We don’t do that here at Kentucky. When [athletic director] Mitch [Barnhart] called me and talked to me about being the head coach here at Kentucky, I understand the assignment. We are here to win banners."

That is what Kentucky fans came to hear.

Pope returns home a hero and a savior — so UK fans hope — from a brand of basketball that produced top-10 rankings, NBA lottery picks and just one NCAA tournament win since 2019.

The Calipari era was one of unquestioned success. Arguably the greatest recruiter in the history of the sport, Calipari produced 13 NCAA tournament teams, four Final Fours and a national championship across 15 seasons. It's a run almost every other basketball program in the nation would cherish.

But Calipari never quite jibed with Kentucky culture. He touted players over program, lottery picks over championships.

"We're a players-first program,'' Calipari famously told ESPN in 2010 after John Wall was the first of five Kentucky players selected in the first round of the NBA draft. "And we might have just had the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history with a No. 1 pick and five first-round picks.''

Forgive Kentucky fans if they immediately pointed that day to any of the program's previous seven national championships as a better candidate for "biggest day in Kentucky basketball history."

Calipari would soon secure the program's eighth title in 2012, and all was fine. As long as he was hanging banners, whatever process Calipari took to reach that end worked. But when the March and April wins dried up, so did Calipari's time in Lexington. After another disappointing first-round exit in March, Calipari and Kentucky had had enough of each other. He left last week for the considerably less pressure-packed sideline in Arkansas.

Now Kentucky has one of its own at the helm, a past champion from a golden era who feels the UK culture in his soul.

Pope reportedly wasn't the first choice to replace Calipari. It's likely he wasn't the second or even the third. But on Sunday, he was the right choice in the minds of an ecstatic Kentucky fan base eager to turn the page.


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