Mark Pope’s debut was something else. ‘It felt like the best days of Kentucky basketball.’

The bus rolled up, and the Kentucky basketball greats started rolling out.

One after another, they exited onto the Rupp Arena floor Sunday afternoon. There were former Wildcats from all eras. They had played for Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, Billy Gillispie and John Calipari.

They were all here to see the next in line. They all boarded that bus in support of the man who would usher in a new era of Kentucky basketball.

One by one, they stepped through that door to the cheers of a capacity crowd, a boisterous group in blue and white who had somehow filled Rupp Arena to its rafters on two days’ notice. Jack Givens and Rex Chapman and Richie Farmer and Darius Miller and countless others. So many recognizable faces — household names around these parts — that beamed when they looked up and saw the sea of fans waiting for them.

The last Wildcats off that bus were the members of the 1996 national championship team. Tony Delk got, perhaps, the biggest pop, throwing both arms up in the air with a smile of appreciation and skedaddling out of the spotlight.

He knew — like everyone else — who the fans were here to see.

And then Mark Pope walked down those steps and through that door and onto the Rupp Arena floor. The 6-foot-10 center looked up into the stands with a smile on his face and held an object as high into the air as his left arm could reach. In that hand, Pope held the 1996 NCAA title.

He won the press conference before saying a single word.

What came next was something else.

And about an hour later — a few moments after the first chapter of this new era of UK basketball had ended — Chapman was still marveling at the scene. The star of the 1980s nodded to the greatness of the ’90s, and all of the magic that era entailed.

“Just seeing the blue and white — all the way to the rafters — it felt like it was when they were playing,” he said. “It felt like the best days of Kentucky basketball here. It felt like old state tournaments used to feel like, when you packed it in and there was no internet.

“So, it was amazing.”

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart kept his formal introduction brief. He spoke of the future by tying it to the past. The man that would follow him onto that stage had lived and breathed Kentucky basketball his entire adult life, even if he’d been physically removed from it for nearly three decades.

A captain of that 1996 national championship team — perhaps the best single collection of Wildcats ever — Pope didn’t need a lesson on the program’s storied history. He didn’t need a sales pitch to the fans. The turnout said they were already sold.

For all the success of the Calipari era — four Final Fours, a national title and dozens of NBA draft picks — the mood in Rupp Arena on Sunday suggested a whole bunch of Kentucky fans were looking for a fresh start.

“It’s time for us to find our way back,” Barnhart said. “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.”

Pope took the stage.

“We see these introductory press conferences all the time,” he said at the beginning of a 20-minute opening statement. “Nobody in the world has ever seen anything like this.”

A thunderous “Go Big Blue!” chant — one of many on this occasion — greeted those words.

Mark Pope, right, hands off the 1996 national championship trophy to former teammate Derek Anderson before the new Kentucky coach’s introductory press conference at Rupp Arena on Sunday.
Mark Pope, right, hands off the 1996 national championship trophy to former teammate Derek Anderson before the new Kentucky coach’s introductory press conference at Rupp Arena on Sunday.

A promise of banners in Rupp Arena

Pope owned the crowd from the beginning, and he spent the next 45 minutes or so — that opening statement plus nearly a half-hour answering questions from reporters — hitting on just about every point that Kentucky fans had been wanting to hear.

He spoke of the importance of the name on the front of the jersey.

“I learned about gratitude here at Kentucky,” Pope said. “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 — is that they are not doing those jerseys a favor by letting the jerseys clothe them.

“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.”

Pope talked about putting Kentucky basketball — the program — ahead of everything else.

“Guys, it is the greatest honor that I will ever have in my professional — or this (UK basketball) family — career to be able to come back here and do this with you,” he said. “The difference between Kentucky and every other program in the country is that this is not my team.”

Then he gestured in the directions of his 1996 teammates.

“It’s not even our team,” he said.

And then Pope stretched both arms out and up, gesturing to everyone in the building.

“It is our team,” he said.

Mark Pope called being named the head coach at Kentucky “the greatest honor that I will ever have in my professional — or this (UK basketball) family — career to be able to come back here and do this with you.”
Mark Pope called being named the head coach at Kentucky “the greatest honor that I will ever have in my professional — or this (UK basketball) family — career to be able to come back here and do this with you.”

He thanked his former UK coach, Rick Pitino, and teased that Kentucky fans from those days would see a lot of similarities in the way the Pope-era Wildcats would play, another line that generated plenty of cheers.

He gave in-state recruit Travis Perry a shout-out and referenced freshman hot-shot Reed Sheppard, the son of his college roommate, Jeff Sheppard, who smiled from the sidelines. He also said he would pursue both McDonald’s All-Americans and guys who would stay four years “and grow in your hearts and minds and become Kentucky legends.”

He talked about winning basketball games, of course, and he specifically promised to win them in Nashville — the current home of the SEC Tournament, the event that his predecessor has downplayed so many times in years past.

“Because you guys turn out in Nashville like nobody else, and that matters,” Pope said.

And, of course, he made multiple references to the 17 blue and white banners hanging high in the Rupp Arena rafters, the ones to honor each trip the Cats have made to the Final Four, the newest one raised nine long years ago. Eight of those say “NCAA CHAMPION.”

“I understand the assignment. We are here to win banners,” he said. … “Our job here — our assignment — is to go win banners in the Final Four, win national championships. That’s our job.”

The Pope era begins

By the time the spectacle was finished, the former UK players in the building were impressed.

“Mark Pope learned — as you saw today — you can’t be around Rick Pitino for more than an hour and not take away something that he has said,” Chapman said. “He’s just so motivational. And Rick really formed these guys. They loved and revered him. And Mark Pope plays Rick Pitino-style basketball. He gets after you. He gets up and down. And shoots a lot of 3s.

“He’s gonna get talent in here. He’s gonna have talent he’s never had before. That he didn’t have at Utah Valley State or BYU. He’s gonna have that here. Pressure’s on. He said it himself. But, man, am I excited about it.”

Chapman recounted that Sunday afternoon bus ride to Rupp. He was in awe of the generations of Kentucky basketball players seated all around him. There were video cameras rolling to document the moment. Chapman said that at one point, Pope told them to stop filming. The new UK coach was sitting at the back of the bus, surrounded by his teammates from the 1990s.

“And he just sat on the back of the bus — just like we were all going to a ballgame — and he laughed with his teammates for 20 minutes back there,” Chapman said. “That stuff’s invaluable. And you can also see why he does so well when he sits down with young men in their living rooms, with their parents.”

One of those teammates was Derek Anderson, a fellow national champion in 1996 and a star of the Pitino era. When Pope had to give up that 1996 NCAA title so he could take the stage Sunday, he handed it to Anderson for safe-keeping.

After it was all over, Anderson reflected on what had just happened and what’s coming next.

“It means a lot, man,” he said. “I felt like I was a part of his success today. That’s how we’ve always felt — the ’96 team. So I’m just excited that he’s getting this opportunity. And again, he understands the assignment. It’s winning. The University of Kentucky has been about winning.

“So, that jersey — when you put it on — you represent something that represents you. So our fan base and our players, we have to be on the same page. And I think he’s bringing that to the light.”

Anderson, a Louisville native who transferred to UK from Ohio State, said he knew as soon as he arrived here for that 1995-96 season what Kentucky basketball was all about. He knew what it would take to succeed. Pope was already here, and — even though he wasn’t born in Kentucky — Anderson found a leader who also knew what it took to be a Wildcat.

“So when we played, we played with a passion and aggression to dominate,” he said. “We didn’t come playing around and being cute. We came to dominate. And I think that’s his mindset.”

Was he surprised at the turnout? A packed house for a press conference? Anderson thought about it for only a second.

“No, I’m not,” he replied. “It just felt good to see it. I wasn’t surprised, because this is what Kentucky fans do. We go to Alaska, it’s sold out in blue. Everywhere we went, it was sold out. But because they feel like this is what we want, what we need — they came to respond and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to support you.’ If you get that support and you do your job, everything will work out.”

On Thursday night, once it became clear that Pope was going to be the next head coach at Kentucky, a text group that included the players from that 1996 team chatted into the wee hours. Anderson said it was going until 3 a.m. — guys celebrating and sending Pope personal messages of congratulations.

“It was just emotional,” he said. “Everybody was cheering for him. And it just felt like we were winning. It felt like we got ours. And it’s just because he’s a great guy. He’s got the right mindset. He has a great passion for UK. And we love UK. So you’re seeing one of the people that you really care about succeed, and we’re excited for him.”

One last win for those 1996 Wildcats?

“Absolutely!” Anderson said, his emotion breaking into a huge laugh. “That’s great. I like that.”

A few minutes earlier, a captain of those ’96 Cats was asked if the moment he walked into his new office — the office of the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky — was one where it all finally started to sink in.

“I think every single second has been a moment. Because my heart is here,” Pope said. “Right? It is just awesome. 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.”

Fans lined up for hours outside Rupp Arena on Sunday waiting to get inside for Mark Pope’s introductory press conference as Kentucky’s new men’s basketball coach.
Fans lined up for hours outside Rupp Arena on Sunday waiting to get inside for Mark Pope’s introductory press conference as Kentucky’s new men’s basketball coach.

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