Rick Pitino gives glowing endorsement of Mark Pope after Kentucky fans criticize hire

The St. John's head coach praised the hiring of his former player at Kentucky
St. John's v Seton Hall; St. John's basketball head coach Rick Pitino
St. John's v Seton Hall; St. John's basketball head coach Rick Pitino / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages

Rick Pitino is protecting one of his own and the St. John's basketball coach could not be more excited for the future of Kentucky after the hiring of Mark Pope.

Pope, a former player with the Wildcats under Pitino, was named as the next head coach of the historic program on Thursday night after John Calipari left for Arkansas in a stunning move that rocked the college basketball world.

Many Kentucky fans wanted a more accomplished head coach instead of Pope, who has not won an NCAA Tournament game in his nine years between Utah Valley and BYU.

"What a special day for the University of Kentucky," Pitino said. "The leader, the captain of the untouchables is coming home to lead the Wildcats."

Mark Pope was the team captain under Pitino's team in Lexington, which won the 1996 NCAA Tournament in dominant fashion. It's average winning margin (21.1 points) was a tournament record until UConn defeated its opponents by 23.3 points per game during its title run this year.

Kentucky fans were hoping to hire either Nate Oats, Scott Drew, Danny Hurley, or Billy Donovan but each coach turned the Wildcats down. Pitino said each of those coaches had struggles early in their careers too, and highlights Pope leading BYU to a 23-11 (10-8 Big 12) record in the team's first season in the conference.

"Mark Pope, offensively, no one does it better," he added. "Mark Pope will go onto greatness, you can put it down."

"I can guarantee you one thing. Nobody, nobody epitomizes the name Kentucky on the front of the jersey more than Mark Pope."

Pope has a 187-108 record as a head coach and has reached two NCAA Tournaments in his career.

"What some of you don't realize is what good of a basketball mind he says," Pitino continued in his message to Kentucky fans. The Hall of Famer explained how persistent Pope will be on the recruiting trail, although recruiting is very different in this age of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL).

"I'm sure Kentucky is going to have a strong NIL. You have one of the premier young coaches in the game, relish it because he will do you proud."

Despite the connection between Rick Pitino and Kentucky, the St. John's basketball head coach was never considered for the job, much to the dismay of a majority in Big Blue Nation.

"I sit here today at St. John's and I couldn't be any more proud than to see Mark Pope lead the Kentucky Wildcats to another championship. He'll get it done...He loves, absolutely loves, Kentucky across his chest."