Pope, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 1991-92, left UW after coach Lynn Nance didn’t get a new contract. His road since then has been diverse, from an NCAA title to the NBA to medical school. Now, he’s the first-year head coach at Utah Valley, which plays Seattle U on Saturday.
Mark Pope is a Hall of Famer in the art of self-deprecation.
He defines his role on the star-laden 1996 Kentucky national championship team as “getting everyone water as soon as I could.” He routinely calls himself one of the worst players in NBA history — though his career lasted parts of six seasons with three teams. He made the Indiana Pacers roster, he says, only because “I totally tricked Coach (Larry) Bird.”
Of Todd Hollandsworth, fellow 1991 Newport High School of Bellevue graduate and National League rookie of the year with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1996, Pope says, “Todd was a whole different level. I was just trying to hang in there. Todd was the real deal.”
Mark Pope file
High School: Newport
College: Washington (1991-93), Kentucky (1994-96). Part of Kentucky’s 1996 NCAA championship team.
Pros: Nine-year career, including parts of six seasons in the NBA. Reached the conference finals in 1998 with Indiana and 2001 with Milwaukee.
Coaching career: Served as an assistant at Georgia, Wake Forest and BYU. Named head coach of Utah Valley on March 31, 2015.
And in his current job as the first-year head coach at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, which plays a vital Western Athletic Conference game against Seattle University at KeyArena on Saturday, Pope raves about the potential of the rapidly growing school.
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“Everything is in place, if I don’t screw it up,’’ Pope said in a phone interview.
But Pope is especially hard on himself, and not in a lighthearted way, when it comes to his stint at the University of Washington, which came at a troubled juncture in the school’s basketball history.
A huge recruiting “get” by then-Husky coach Lynn Nance as a prep All-American out of Bellevue’s Newport High, the 6-foot-10 Pope was Pac-10 rookie of the year in 1991-92. Though the Huskies went just 12-17, he beat out the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Tyus Edney and Lamond Murray for the honor.
But after Pope’s sophomore year, in which the Huskies went 13-14, Nance resigned when athletic director Barbara Hedges refused to give him a contract extension.
Pope and Nance were very close, and remain so to this day. With Nance gone, Pope elected to transfer. Though he met with the new Huskies coach Bob Bender, and also considered Utah, Pope opted to join Rick Pitino’s budding Kentucky powerhouse.
“Coach Bender was terrific, but it just didn’t seem right to be there without Coach (Nance),’’ Pope said.
He won an NCAA title at Kentucky as a senior co-captain, with star teammates like Tony Delk and Walter McCarty. But Pope’s Washington experience remains a sore point more than two decades later.
“It was a huge failure,’’ he said. “It still haunts me. Sometimes, you put your whole heart and soul into something, and you still can’t do it. I certainly loved my time there. I wish I could have done a better job so we could have won and kept Coach and done what we set out to do when we came there.”
A second-round draft pick of the Pacers in 1997, Pope’s NBA career — interrupted by two stints playing in Turkey and a stretch in the Continental Basketball Association — was the definition of “journeyman.” He lived in constant bewilderment that a team was actually keeping him on their roster.
But Pope firmly believes that living on the edge helped him learn the craft, which in turn has aided him hugely as a coach. So did playing for coaches like Pitino, Bird and George Karl.
“Because I couldn’t do anything, I had to cheat every part of the game,’’ he said. “Especially in the NBA, just to make the roster and play the little I did, I had to hone in. The other fun part for me, I was just a big fan. I was mesmerized by guys I got to listen to every day.
“I’ll never forget my first summer league. After my first three days of workouts, I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe Larry Bird is cussing me out.’ It’s the greatest thing in the world.”
So, perversely, was getting cut by Bird. They had developed a close player-coach relationship in Indiana, and when Bird called him in for the bad news, both were in tears.
“It was the most awful, wonderful thing ever,’’ he said. “Who gets to be fired by Larry Bird?”
It was one of seven times Pope got “fired” in his playing career, by his count. But his most abrupt career change was entirely of his own doing.
After his NBA career, Pope was accepted into medical school at Columbia University, having fulfilled some of the science prerequisites during his playing days. He took classes at Marquette when he played for the Milwaukee Bucks and at Colorado when he was with the Denver Nuggets. Pope studied on buses and in hotel rooms. He scored well on his Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and was accepted by Yale, New York University and Denver before settling on Columbia.
In his third year of med school, he was working rotations at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the final step before residency. Then Pope had an epiphany: Basketball, not medicine, was in his blood. So he took a job offer from Georgia coach Mark Fox — a Huskies assistant during Pope’s UW days — to be the Bulldogs’ basketball operations coordinator.
There is a self-deprecating explanation (“I realized pretty quickly at Columbia I wasn’t the smartest tool in the shed … I might have killed more patients than I saved”) and the real one.
“I thought the whole thing was fascinating and I really enjoyed it,’’ he said. “But it wasn’t like I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and get after it. I started to look at a 30-year career and feel like that would be a long time. For me and my wife, it was four weeks of just torture as we tried to make a decision.”
Coaching, even at the lowest rung, was instantly exhilarating to Pope. And after stints as an assistant at Wake Forest and Brigham Young, he was given the keys to Utah Valley last March. The Wolverines, 11-19 a year ago, bring a 12-15 record and 6-6 conference mark into their showdown with Seattle U.
They also bring a 43-year-old coach — married to Lee Anne, with four daughters — who sounds like he’s in the right profession for the next 30 years.
“Coach Rose (BYU’s Dave Rose) told me more than once, there’s some guys that just love being a head coach, and some guys don’t,” Pope said. “You have to do it to find out. I’m certainly on the side of a guy that loves it.”