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May 28, 2024

Mitch Barnhart believes Kentucky got its heartbeat back with Mark Pope

Mitch Barnhart believes Kentucky got its heartbeat back with Mark Pope

Mitch Barnhart was criticized for moving so quickly to hire Mark Pope as the men’s basketball program’s next head coach. Just hours removed from being turned down by Baylor’s Scott Drew and UConn’s Dan Hurley, the BYU coach was one you always knew you had in your back pocket, a card you could play at any point. He’d crawl on glass to Lexington the day before Big Blue Madness for this opportunity. Why make this move now?

Because Barnhart saw everything he needed to see when sitting down with Pope. He didn’t need to interview any other candidates or wait for others to become available, he had found his guy and didn’t want to wait another second to bring him home.

Two weeks ago, he was sitting next to John Calipari in his office discussing their championship standards together and what it’d take to hit those highs again. Today, he introduced the guy he truly believes will make it happen as the leader of the Kentucky basketball program.

“It’s absolutely been a blur, I do know that. The landscape changes a lot of things in college athletics quickly and it changed dramatically quickly in this situation,” Barnhart said. “With the dead period ending, you don’t have a lot of time to wait because of the way the portal works and all of those things. That was part of the realization as to where you were and the things you had to react to. Lots of emotions and a lack of sleep.

“I’m glad to be in a really, really cool spot with a guy I’m looking forward to journeying with.”

Barnhart was downright giddy during the introduction and press conference, smiling from ear to ear watching Pope steal the show. He knew fans were seeing exactly what he saw during the interview process, why he knew it was a waste of time to explore any other possibilities.

Pope could be using that time getting to work.

“I felt comfortable with Mark. We’re diminishing — if we sit here and say, ‘Why didn’t I wait?’ I didn’t feel that I needed to, I was comfortable with who I had,” Barnhart said. “I liked him. I knew where I wanted to go, I had a couple two or three thoughts of where I wanted to go at the beginning, it played out. It’s no mystery we talked to someone first, and Mark knew that. I said, ‘This is the way this is going to work.’ I was comfortable with our process, our research, the people I was talking to, I felt like I was ready to go. So, let’s go.”

In reality, Pope was higher on the candidate list than anyone gave him credit for throughout the process. He had to pursue Drew and Hurley — he owed the fanbase that much — but knew the former 1996 national championship was at the top of the priority list from there.

Barnhart followed BYU and its move to the Big 12 closely. He studied the offense and the team’s identity, Pope’s personality and how much the Wildcats mean to him. Put it all together and it wasn’t a hard sell.

“He’s one of ours. I paid particular attention to him all year long. I watched him, watched him as a head coach. They entered the Big 12 and I can’t speak for the people who vote for the Big 12 Coach of the Year, but I’m not sure anybody deserved it more than him. I get it, the person who gets the championship usually gets the coach, but what he did walking into that league and doing what he did?” Barnhart said. “BYU is not the easiest place to recruit to from time to time. I felt like their offense was dynamic and interesting as I talked to people about the way they play the game. You watch them on film and they’re fun to watch.

“Everybody wants to go in the way-back machine, and this is a little of what it felt like back in the days, talking about what we had and pointing to banners. It gives you that vibe. When you talk to him, you get a real feel for his love for this institution.

“I don’t think there was anything more important at a time in our journey to find somebody that understood this Commonwealth, this fanbase and our program, what we needed. He checked every box. He knew exactly what we needed and he knew exactly the pathway to get it done.”

Barnhart knew Pope would crush his press conference, but he’ll admit it was cool watching Rupp Arena embrace him the way it did, not an empty seat in the house on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Again, for a press conference.

Big Blue Nation made good on its commitment to the program and Pope followed through on his.

It’s exactly what the program needs and when it needs it.

“I’m the AD, I don’t know. But I thought he knocked it out of the park. He was great,” Barnhart said. “He’s exactly who I thought he’d be and he did exactly what I thought he would do. He was in love with them before he walked into the room. I think they are now in love with him. … We have to find our way back to our heartbeat, and I think he did that.”

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