Everything new UK basketball coach Mark Pope said during his Rupp Arena introduction

New Kentucky men’s basketball coach Mark Pope was introduced at Rupp Arena on Sunday afternoon in front of a capacity crowd of UK fans.

Fans packed into all corners of the downtown Lexington arena for the event, which was headlined by Pope’s official unveiling as UK’s head coach and his first press conference with media members.

Pope, 51, was previously the head coach at both BYU and Utah Valley. He played at Kentucky under Rick Pitino from 1994-96 and was also on campus for the 1993-94 season after transferring to UK from Washington.

He played a key supporting role on the Wildcats’ beloved 1996 national championship squad. Former UK players spanning generations (including that 1996 squad) departed a Kentucky team bus to begin Sunday’s event, with Pope the last man off it and holding the 1996 NCAA championship trophy.

Pope’s homecoming in front of a boisterous Rupp Arena crowd represents a new era for the program after former head coach John Calipari left earlier this month after 15 seasons in Lexington to become the new head coach at Arkansas.

Sunday’s event featured opening remarks from both Pope and Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart, followed by a question-and-answer session with Pope and media members.

Here’s everything that was said during the introductory event.

Mitch Barnhart: “Wow. Truly amazing. Amazing. And thank you for every one of you coming out on a wonderful Sunday afternoon. Thank you so much. (Applause). There are programs that don’t get this kind of crowd for five games. UK is here for a press conference, that is awesome. That is awesome. (Applause).

A few thank yous and a few comments. First off, thank you to the President, Dr. Capilouto, our Board of Trustees, our lettermen, who are right over here, they got off the bus over here with us and specifically the teammates of Mark Pope on the ‘96 team. Congratulations, one of your guys is back. (Cheers).

We’ve got several members of our head coaching staff over here, and we would like to thank them for coming to support Mark, that is awesome. (Applause). We have members of the Rupp family here somewhere, I am not sure where they are, they are right back here. Thank you for being here today. (Applause).

I would like to thank Mark (Hill) and Ray (Oliver) for all of their help during this process, it is really good. Quickly, I will give Mark a jersey. We take these photo ops all of the time. I will finish my remarks and get him up here. Let’s do this real quick. (Applause).

There is an old song from the ‘70s by Jefferson Starship,’Find Your Way Back.’ I date myself. It is time for us to find our way back. (Cheers).

To do that, you need a guide, you have to have someone who has been on the journey before and knows the way, the work, the challenges and eventually the beauty of the destination. That’s right. To understand the heart of this special place, and we have such a person today, a letterman, check the box; we have a captain, check the box; (cheers); We have a champion, check the box; (cheers); We have got a guy that understands the professional game, check the box; We’ve got a scholar, I have never hired a Rhode Scholar candidate in my life, check the box.

Most of all, we have an amazing husband, father and coach, check three boxes. (Cheers).

He will guide us back to our heart, through all of the changes in college sports, he understands the DNA that leads us to the destination. He says this changed the trajectory of his life. We’re excited for this, for him to do this for our program and our guys.

A couple more sentences and I’m out, because you didn’t come here to hear me. It is with great pleasure we welcome today the Pope family. Welcome, it is our honor you are here. (Applause).

And while I’m making introductions, I will introduce the new head basketball coach of the University of Kentucky, Mark Pope! (Cheers).”

Mark Pope: “Hey, Mitch, Mitch, Mitch, hold on. So, guys, we see these introductory press conferences all the time. Nobody in the world has ever seen anything like this. (Cheers). But I’m about to break tradition.

(Cheers — Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!) I’m about to break tradition. At every one of these press conferences the coach comes up and stands there with the AD and takes a picture with a jersey that they made that ends up in a closet somewhere. We’re not doing that. (Cheers). (Cheers). Hey, this jersey comes from a hallowed place in my home because it is a jersey I got to wear with my teammates and all of Kentucky nations in the national championship games in the Meadowlands of New York. And that’s not just a jersey that will go in the closet. It is a jersey that has blood, sweat, and tears and love and it is all of us together. (Cheers).

I will keep this as short as I can. I talk a lot. But there is one other way I want to blow up this press conference, and I will get crushed for doing this, (cheers), every coach in America at every other job in America stands up at the press conference and they try and moderate expectations. We don’t do that here at Kentucky. (Cheers). When Mitch called me and talked to me about being the head coach here at Kentucky, I understand the assignment. We are here to win banners. (Cheers).

And as we go through this journey, we’re here to win banners in Nashville, (cheers), because you guys turn out in Nashville like nobody else and that matters. (Cheers). And we are here, our job here, our assignment is to go win banners in the Final Four, win national championships. That’s our job. (Cheers).

With those high expectations there will come criticism. But I don’t want you guys to worry, because I will group chat with every one of my single ‘96 championship teammates and they will destroy me every time something goes wrong. (Laughter).

I want to do a couple of thank yous, please. Thank you, President Capilouto, for his leadership. I’m grateful for Mitch Barnhart, as I’ve watched the last 22 years as he has run this program and how he is as a man. We’re grateful to have him here. He is incredible. (Cheers).

I’m grateful to Mark Hill and Ray Oliver for all of the work they have done in this process over the last 72 hours. Grateful to these players. I’m grateful for the players from ‘96 and through the generations at Kentucky who have made this place what it is. I’m grateful to every single one of you. More than anything else, what separates us from everybody else, we have great coaches, players, administrators, but what makes us different from everybody else is you all. I’m so grateful for you. (Cheers).

(Pope leads the crowd in a C-A-T-S chant).

Like Mitch said, I love this place from the depths of my soul. It changed my entire life. If you will indulge me briefly, I would like to introduce my family to your family. And I would like to show you how much we love this place. My daughter, Layla, stand up, please, just wave. (Applause). This is 100 percent a true story. When Mitch offered us a job he gave us a couple of hours to consult our family. We didn’t need it. He knew I would walk here to take this job. (Laughter).

But as we gathered the girls from all of the various places, Layla Pope walks in the door, and I kid you not, her first words were, she knows the deal, ‘Tell me who is in the house tonight, UK.’ She did exactly that, exactly that. (Cheers). True story.

That evening, Avery stand up, and Shay stand up and say hi. (Applause). I don’t know how they did it or where it came from, but they went down in the basement in storage and both came up with ‘96 untouchable vintage T-shirts. I have no idea. Ella is my oldest daughter, and she knows me the best and my history the best. And her only question was: ‘Dad, when are we going?’ Of course it was. Will you stand up. (Applause).

And then Lee Ann, will you stand up and say hi. (Applause) (Cheers).

So if you will stay with me for a second, if you are a mother, and you can imagine all of the pressure and stress that comes with life as a mom and all of the things that she has to consider every single day. And we sat around the table and got everybody’s reaction and with all of the burden, with all of the grace and courage and elegance you can imagine, Lee Ann looked across the table and said, ‘Let’s go.’ (Cheers).

You don’t need to know this, but I will say it anyway because I can, I’m madly in love with this woman. She makes sense of my life. I’m so grateful for her. (Cheers). And you will quickly find out, she will get to know every single one of you and love you like crazy. It will be really special, okay? (Cheers).

So Pope family, stand up because this is important. I want you to turn around and, Pope family, I want to introduce you to our family. (Cheers).

All right. Should we talk a little bit about coaching? I will tell you things that are deeply in our DNA as a coach and what is interesting, where we learned them. So you will hear from me every single day, 24/7 work, relentless 24/7 work. I learned that here. I was here for maybe two weeks and I had transferred in and I couldn’t believe I was at the University of Kentucky, and I was like, man, they have all All-Americans. I have to catch up.

So it is 11:30 p.m. in the Wildcat Lodge and I have to get extra work in. I walk across the street, open up the door, and I hear balls bouncing. Who is in there? It was like five guys, like JP and Shep and DA and TD in a full sweat already. (Cheers). Those guys taught me how to work. I learned about resilience here. And here at Kentucky resilience is a requirement. It is not an exception, it is a requirement, and I learned that here. I learned here about the passion wins championships; passion wins championships.

And sometimes, my ‘96 guys will remember this story, sometimes when you are on the court playing with all of the passion, competing with all of the passion you can, your insides end up all over the floor. (Laughter). I learned that from my guys. I learned about gratitude here at Kentucky. I learned so much about gratitude. Entitlement leads to sorrow and depression. And gratitude leads to joy. And I will tell you this, you know all these players know, what all of the future players will learn really quick, okay, is that they are not doing those jerseys a favor by letting the jerseys clothe them. (Cheers).

Our guys will know quickly, and it is hard not to know, it will be one of the great honors of their life to put that jersey on. (Cheers). There is only a select few players in the world that ever get to wear a Kentucky jersey, to wear a Kentucky jersey, it is one of the greatest honors guys can ever have as a basketball player.

Let me tell you a story. I played a decade in the NBA and it has been confirmed that I was the worst player to ever wear Jerry West, OK? Unanimous polling, all right? You know what we did in the locker room? I played with All-Stars. You know what we did? We didn’t talk about the NBA teams we played for, championships or MVPs, we sat in the locker room and talked about our college basketball teams. (Cheers). That’s a true story, a fact. That is what you do. Nobody is going home to the NBA team, they are coming home to here. This is a gift to be here. (Applause). I believe these players, man, our job as coaches is we get to be shepherds. (Cheers).

Sometimes no words are the most powerful words of all. (Laughter). But Shep and I are roommates for a long time, so we get to do that for a little bit, to be a shepherd to these guys. When you come to Kentucky, it rips you open and you get to rebuild yourself with your teammates and staff and we get to shepherd you through that. These players are my job to coach and shepherd and our job to love.

And for every player, for every player I wish that they could come experience something like this. There is nothing better. You cannot get it anywhere else besides Kentucky. There is nowhere else you can get this, nowhere else.

All right. I will give you a few specifics about basketball really quick. You know that my team last year made the second most 3’s in all of college basketball. (Cheers). But at Kentucky we don’t come in second. (Cheers). My team last year had the fourth most assists in the country, and at Kentucky we share everything. (Cheers). We’re going to be aggressive on offense, we will change it up and keep people on their heels on defense. And that’s ...(cheers). I heard a ‘defense wins games’ out here. (Cheers). And that’s our plan. That is what we will work for every day, and we have no choice but to be successful.

Guys, it is the greatest honor that I will ever have in my professional or this family career to be able to come back here and do this with you. The difference between Kentucky and every other program in the country is that this is not my team. It is not even our team. It is our team. (Cheers). I’m looking up at these banners up here. I’ve got championship team 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, if you remember, I can’t tell you how many times I heard Kyle tell the story about halftime when coach came in and said five words, ‘Get the ball to Goose.’ (Cheers, followed by a ‘Goose’ chant).

We’ve got 1996 team. What? (Cheers). And we have got these legends. I think I have a couple here from 2012. How much do we love that team? What? (Cheers).

And I will tell you, the last thing I have for you, when I look up at the banners, when I look up at the rafters, it looks super crowded, if I know anything in the world about Mitch Barnhart, he will make more room. (Cheers). Let’s go fill it up. Go Cats! Love you, Cats! (Go Big Blue cheer).”

New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena on Sunday.
New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena on Sunday.

Question about how growing up around women and being a father and husband has helped make him a better coach: “Good question. Well, the one thing that my girls did for me, they never listen to anything that I say, most importantly, and just know this, as tough as the ‘96 team is with me, when I come home after games I hear an earful from the Pope girls. They are awesome. Thank you for being here, baby, thank you. Thank you.”

Question about Pope’s recruiting philosophy and if he’s spoken to members of the current Kentucky team: “We are talking to all of the guys on the current team, all those recruited and every player in the portal right now. And we will find — (cheers). We are going to find the guys that fit here, the way we play, and the guys that will come here and understand what a gift it is to play here at the University of Kentucky.”

Question about how Pope will build a staff for his Kentucky program: “Yeah. It is so dynamic right now, the portal, NIL. Conference realignment has changed so quickly. Building a staff now you are not looking just for the skill sets for just recruiting but considering GM positions that navigate a roster, considering NIL positions.

Let me say something about NIL. It is more than just cash. It is building a future and contributing to a community. And doing that right takes a lot of effort. And I can go into hours and hours of conversations on that.”

Question about how Pope will schedule games at Kentucky: “Anybody here down for the game versus St. John’s? You know I neglected, I’m so embarrassed, I neglected to pay homage to coach Rick Pitino. (Cheers). Every coach that has coached here has done amazing things, contributed to Big Blue Nation, but Coach Pitino changed me. And I will tell you, like he changed me to my soul, changed my DNA as a human being. He allowed me to be someone who feels they can walk into any room and take on any impossible task. And I will love him forever. So I say St. John’s because I have so much admiration for him. He is the best that did it. I love him so much.

My other question, since we have a small group gathered together, (laughter), let’s say sometime in the future we can find our way into this Maui tournament. Would anybody come? (Cheers). Maybe. We will see.”

Question about the hiring process between Barnhart and Pope: “Here is the deal. I’ve been blessed with some of the most incredible coaching opportunities in the world, so incredible. I have loved deeply the places I have been able to coach. Since I started coaching, every person that I know, including my ADs and associate ADs and players, they know that, like, my heart bleeds blue Kentucky. They just know.

And Mitch knew that. And, so, I think that is — maybe he was a little cautious calling me because he knew I was going to say yes before he finished the question. ‘Hey, Mark, would you — yes!’ (Laughter).”

Question about how Pope plans to win in the postseason with Kentucky: “That’s the job, guys. We are not ducking it. We know the assignment. That is what it is, right? (Cheers). And, frankly, if you are too cautious or too worried to take on the challenge, don’t come to Kentucky because there is nothing else that is acceptable. (Cheers). So somewhere in me, I’m bordering between bold and dumb, but I think we can do it, guys. Let’s go do it. OK?”

Question about how Pope’s playing experience at Kentucky will help him recruit and build the program: “Do we have time? Can I tell this story? So... So we are playing Syracuse in the national championship. And there was, give or take, a minute left. The only meaningful play I made in my entire career, they were pushing the ball down the floor and I trip and fall and it is deflected and they give me a foul. That is how good I was.

So it happened right down there in the Meadowlands and I started to walk from there to the free-throw line, I don’t know, 50 seconds left, maybe up 3, maybe up 5, and there was only one thought, this is honestly the truth, I was not thinking about form or team or celebration or score, I literally was walking, and I promise this is true, the only thought that came into my mind is, if I don’t make this they are going to kill me! And who wants that? That is why we are here, guys. That is what we do.”

Question about Pope’s philosophy with in-state recruiting: “Yeah. So, yeah. (Cheers). So from Richie Farmer (cheers) and all of the instate greats that came before him, including Reed last year, and I don’t know if he is here right now, but Travis Perry next year. Are you here? Stand up. What are you doing? (Cheers).

There is a good chance he will not jump into the portal, guys. But before Richie and after Travis and everybody in-between that is an instate Kentucky kid, these young men that grow up in Kentucky, they bring a spirit to the team that cannot be fabricated or replaced. And it helps us to win, and we will continue to recruit them.”

Question about Pope having staff positions at UK only to deal with NIL and the transfer portal: “Yeah. It is very much in the forefront in all of our conversations and maybe not titled that way, maybe responsibility. But clearly that is wildly important. I am not smart enough to figure it all out, so we will get help in here to do it.”

Question about expectations for Kentucky basketball for the 2024-25 season: “I would try to temper expectations, but that is not happening, you are not allowing that. So why try? We are trying to win and our goal is to win every game we play. That is what we are shooting for, trying to win. Listen, and when we lose a game, if that happens, we will pick ourselves up and reassemble and be resilient and relentless and try to win the next one. That is the DNA at Kentucky. If Kentuckians know one thing, they know a hard day’s work and getting up the next day and having another hard day’s work. That is what we know here. (Cheers).”

Question about why prospects should come and play for Pope at Kentucky: “I would say this. There is no doubt that there are great programs all around this country. There are great programs. There is no doubt. And that’s true and it is also true that there is nowhere like the University of Kentucky. There is nowhere. (Cheers). There is nowhere.

Listen. Listen. You guys are living proof of that. We had a little call to arms, a little help to help, and you cannot fit in all of the Kentucky faithful into the building this evening, right? There is nowhere like this, guys. Listen, don’t you think that you are not making a difference, because this video is going out to every recruit in America right now. (Cheers).”

Question about Pope becoming the head coach at Kentucky after initially going to medical school following his playing career: “This is what I will tell you about medical school. Guys, first, you are welcome, because when I dropped out of medical school, the survival rate of patients went way up. And, I don’t know, in terms of being the head coach at Kentucky, because I love this place so much, it is almost incomprehensible to me, even this day. So I’m super grateful, really grateful to you all. (Cheers).”

Question about Pope’s offensive style and a comparison to the 1990s teams he played on at UK: “I will never be as smart as Coach P. I don’t know if I will be as fortunate to have those guys on the court, but we are taking a lot from Coach P’s DNA and growing into it. I think he looks at us and thinks, you copycat, man, stop taking my stuff.

If I can take anything from him, it would be every second desperate relentless fight on the court he inspired of us. I will tell you a quick story. I hope this is okay. Can I tell a story?

Okay. So we are playing here, our bench, unless I’m backwards, and we’re playing athletes in action, somebody will verify the numbers on this, but I don’t know if our guys remember this, but the score was like 28 to 4 to start the game. We are crushing Athletes in Action. And coach calls a timeout because they go on a 4 to 0 run, now it is 28 to 8, give or take. And coach is losing his mind, like he is killing us. And, so, we are sitting on the bench, the coach is laying into us for this 4-0 run, 28 to 8, and I will never forget, you know and love Walt, he stands up and the last thing he says is ‘You guys are going to pay for this tomorrow.’ That is the last thing he said. He stands up white as a ghost, Walt does, his eyes tearing up and he looks at me and says, ‘We have to fix this. We have got to fix this.’ Ha! Ha!

And, so, we will find our own way to fabricate that type of work and energy because that is what Kentucky deserves. If we don’t do it, we don’t belong here. That is the job, guys, that is the assignment.”

Question about what Pope’s first order of business will be to build the UK program: “First of all, hopefully the dust never settles in Kentucky. But right now we are focused on the current players and recruits coming in and it is mostly just figuring out, meeting with them and figuring out if they are the right fit for us right now and how it fits. So it is clearly there and it is clearly the portal and trying to find the guys that fit here. And those guys that fit here sometimes will be one and done, burger boys for sure, and sometimes they will be guys that come here and play four years and grow in your hearts and minds and become Kentucky legends and everything in-between. That is what Kentucky deserves.”

Question about how Mark Pope would reintroduce himself to Kentucky 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. That is who I am.”

Question about how Pope will continue the greatest tradition in college basketball: “We are going to work. That is what we do. That is the answer. We will work hard and smart and together and figure it out. Thank you for the question.”

Question about how Pope will approach making players know the importance of wearing the UK jersey: “That is a challenge for every young person right now. Social media has changed our life, our value system, how we operate and think. And it is one of many things that has changed us. So there is no easy answer to there.

I will tell you, like, we have got distracted when I talked about being a shepherd, but one of the important things that we can teach this generation as they pursue greatness is gratitude. Gratitude is everything to me. And, furthermore, if you want to become a great player you will learn gratitude. It will speed your process to becoming great. And, so, we don’t have a magic pill on that. We will work on it and preach it and teach it and exemplify that like you do in Kentucky every single day.”

Question about if Pope has spoken to Rick Pitino yet: “I still have PTSD and get really nervous when I talk to Coach. But Coach has been a gracious incredible mentor and I love him to death and he is someone that on the right occasions at the right time I will lean on him for counsel because he just is, he works wonders in my life.”

Question about what Pope thinks of the capacity crowd for his introductory event: “I don’t know how to say this. BBN rallies, man. BBN rallies in a big way.

And, you know, super special to me, I will not lie, so we drag as many former players onto the bus as we can get and equally as special to me as all of us walking in here and enjoying this evening with you was walking on the bus and getting to dap up all of these guys that we battled with and celebrated with and the guys that built this place, these legendary Cats that were super special to me. (Applause).”

Question about what Mark Pope is most excited for about next season: “Winning. Let’s go win. We have got to win. Let’s go win!”

Question about how Pope will approach players who played at Kentucky under John Calipari: “I don’t think it is hard because we got to experience this, right? I don’t know how to say this, but part of what is different about Kentucky is there is a really fantastic, strong, young man, older man somewhere up here in the stands, right? And his heart is in Kentucky. And my heart is in Kentucky exactly the same way. And these guys’ hearts are in Kentucky exactly the same way. And it makes us different. This is just different. I feel like I have been everywhere and there is nowhere that shares this all together like we do here in Kentucky. I didn’t have to do anything. These guys care about this place, love this place.”

Question about if former UK players will be allowed to attend practices with Pope as head coach: “I will get in big trouble here. I got a huge warning. So... I don’t know the answer. In the past at previous institutions, I have had open practices for everybody every day. That could really be problematic here, I think. Ha! Ha!

But, listen, this is not my team. This is our team. This is those guys’ team and your team and everyone in the back’s team. So we are, guys, doing this together and that is the basis principle that we are working off of.”

Question about if its resonated with Pope yet that he is leading the Kentucky program: “Yeah, I think every single second has been a moment because my heart is here. Right? It is just awesome. (Applause). And tonight at some point we will go home and jump on the phone and start to recruit. And, like, every call will be an incredible moment because, you know, kids are answering a little bit different when I talk about Kentucky.

Hey. Listen, hey, we have a long road and it will be epic and I love every one of you guys. Thank you so much for being here. Thank you. Let’s go Cats! Let’s go Cats!”

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