Former players will help Mark Pope all they can

Published 5:30 pm Thursday, May 2, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

It was easy for Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team to select Mark Pope as team captain.

“He was the guy who sacrificed it all and did whatever was asked of him. He started and then Walter (McCarty) did in that spot but he did not care because he wanted to win. He was selfless,” said former UK teammate Derek Anderson.

“We all voted for him as team captain. Usually you do not have a senior captain coming off the bench but he was different. He was tremendous for us with his sacrifice and effort. He cares more about UK than he does anything else and always has. That’s his passion. We knew who he was and he was our captain. He was an impactful person and an impactful player. It just went hand in hand with him.”

Email newsletter signup

Anderson valued Pope so much as a teammate that he flew into Lexington from Los Angeles on the day of Pope’s introductory press conference as UK’s new coach and flew back to LA later the same night.

“I was not going to miss that,” Anderson laughed and said. “I would have flown more than four years to be there for him.”

Maybe that’s why Pope gave the national championship trophy to Anderson to hold after the new coach carried it off the bus when it rolled into Rupp Arena to mimic UK’s 1996 national championship reception.

“We were on the bus talking about who should take the trophy and somebody said I should take it because I had better hands. So rather than take a chance on breaking it, I did it for the team just like Mark used to do things for our team.”

Anderson said UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart knew the support Pope would have from former players when he hired him following John Calipari’s resignation. The initial UK fan base may not have seemed overly thrilled with the pick but Anderson knew that would change.

“You are getting a coach who believes in Kentucky and believes you will win. No one could have wanted this job more than him and no one understands the history better,” he said. “Mark loves Kentucky and has always loved Kentucky.”

Anderson remembers how former UK players like Jim Master and Roger Harden left their numbers in lockers so new players would learn who they were year after year.

Anderson said he has no ill will toward any UK coach but admits many former players did not “feel a part of the program” under Calipari.

“We are part of Kentucky basketball. Mark knows that because he was part. We just want the coach to win games and see enthusiasm for players and the university. We want to win championships,” Anderson said. “Mark knows his assignment. He came here to win. All games matter. That’s why we play. You don’t just play for a good time or what is coming later. We all came here to win and Mark did too.

“If you are a golfer, the goal is to make the PGA (Tour). If you are a boxer, you want to win titles. If you go to med school, you want to be a doctor. Mark wants to be the Kentucky coach.”

Anderson said Pope, who came to UK from BYU, will “never” make excuses for a loss or how his team plays.

“He knows he has to get the right guys to play hard and that’s not easy to find,” Anderson said. “We (former) players are going to help in recruiting any way we can. We’ve told him, ‘What you need, you let us know.’

“He doesn’t make excuses. He will hold himself accountable and keep the standard high because that’s how he played. You have to believe when you come to this university that it is about winning and banners.”

Anderson admits NIL and the transfer portal make constructing championship teams harder but not impossible.

“UConn just did it again. Villanova won two (titles),” Anderson said. “Bill Self (of Kansas) won in the NIL era with transfers out of control. It can be done and Mark will figure it out.”