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Mark Pope is 'dying' to bring Rick Pitino back to Rupp Arena and beat him

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim05/13/24

Yes, Mark Pope wants to schedule a home-and-home with Rick Pitino and St. John’s. Yes, he thinks it’s going to happen.

Why? Because he wants to beat his former head coach for the first time, facing off just once as head coaches back on Dec. 23, 2015 when Pitino’s Louisville squad defeated Popes Utah Valley team 98-68 inside the KFC Yum! Center.

A lot has changed for both of them in their respective careers and trajectories in the basketball world, setting up a right-place, right-time matchup with Pope now leading the Wildcats and the former Kentucky coach sitting in a good spot in the public eye coaching the Red Storm back home in New York. There have been some ups and downs for Pitino personally, but things have been steadily and consistently trending up to the point where Pope wants to make the 1996 national championship-winning coach receives the flowers he deserves from Big Blue Nation.

It’s time for Rick Pitino to come home

Between the rivalry factor and off-court distractions, it’s all water under the bridge now. At the end of the day, Pitino is still the face of one of the most beloved eras of Kentucky basketball in the program’s rich history. It’s time.

“We both want it. Scheduling is sometimes so complicated, so we’re both trying to navigate that. What I really want is, I really want Coach to walk back into Rupp Arena because if there’s anything I’ve learned in the three weeks I’ve been here, could there be a fanbase that loves a coach more than Big Blue Nation loves Coach (Pitino)?” Pope told Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports. “I think every year that goes on, I think they become more and more grateful for what he did here. He’s reached such an iconic status in the view of the fans. I know he knows that, but I just would love him to walk back in this building one time and feel that. It’s just different here than anywhere else. It just is.”

“His belief and faith is never-ending.”

Pope was asked about Pitino’s impact on his life as a person, player and coach, what he learned from the Hall of Famer to help mold him into who he is today. And he’ll admit he gets choked up talking about it and thinking back to the memories they shared together in Lexington nearly three decades ago.

It was the toughness and passion, the belief Pitino had in Pope’s future even when he didn’t have it himself. He inspired the new Kentucky coach in every aspect of his life, a deeply-rooted connection he struggles to even put into words.

“Seriously, I get emotional about coach. And it’s harder to do now because we just live in a little bit of a different era. We had to do it differently to help these young people grow, kind of shepherd them through growth. With Coach P, it was a combination of things,” Pope said. “He’s just the most relentless person I’ve ever been around in my life. With all of the definitions of relentless, but in this sense, I’ll just say oppressive pressure. It just was relentless pressure, every single second in every aspect, every single moment. It was the kind that made you feel like you didn’t know if you could face another day, but then you did. There’s this incredibly deep-seeded confidence that comes from that, it’s like the two part of that deal. He had an unending spring of belief — like, his belief and faith is never-ending.

“There is never a situation where Coach doesn’t think he can work his way out of with his team. There’s never a limit to what he believes his players can become, he’s always thinking about what you can become. He sees you how you are now, clearly, and then whether it’s putting the fear of God in you or it’s pushing you harder than you’ve ever been pushed, he refuses to stop until you start to become something more than you ever actually thought you could be.”

A life-changing relationship

To put it simply, his time with Rick Pitino changed his life for the better.

“I know I’m talking a kind of 30,000-foot language, but that’s just — he changed my life. He did it in all of those ways,” Pope added. “He didn’t do it by bringing me in my office and having heart-to-heart talks, he did it by painting a very clear vision and dragging me, pushing me, growing me, prodding me until I could just become something a little bit better than I was before.”

Now given a chance to return the favor and bring Pitino back into the Kentucky spotlight in a positive way after a long run of negativity? You better believe he’s going to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

What about this year? That’s the goal.

It’s what the college basketball world deserves, sooner rather than later — even if it means a trip to Rupp Arena the year before the 30th anniversary of the 1996 national championship.

“That conversation has been had here too. I have no patience, right? I’d like it to happen this year,” Pope said. “Clearly next year would give us more time to kind of plan it out, but what I think about Coach walking into Rupp, he doesn’t need my help because he’s one of the great showmen of all time. I have visions of some variation of Apollo Creed rolling in for his first fight against against Rocky Balboa. I don’t know, it should happen, man. If the basketball world is right, that should happen.”

Dying for a win

Make no mistake about it, though, Pope would have his eye on one thing and one thing only when it comes to this matchup: a win.

Pitino can get his flowers, but he can also pick up a loss, too.

“I’m dying for him to come back to this building so I can beat him. Like, I’m dying. I’m dying. I’m dying to try and beat Coach, man,” Pope said. “It’s gonna happen, we’ve just got to work through all those little pieces that get complicated. I just think so much about the basketball world would be right with Coach having at least one more chance to walk back into this building and let Big Blue Nation show how grateful they are for him and how much they love him.”

Sign us up — especially the part about the win.

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