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UK’s Pope on following Calipari: ‘Have to be me’

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Mark Pope understood the comparisons he would face at Kentucky as the successor to John Calipari, who led the Wildcats to a national title and some of their most fruitful years before his tenure soured in recent years.

But Pope, who was hired in April from BYU following Calipari’s departure to Arkansas, said Tuesday that while he respects Calipari’s legacy, he can win only if he is authentic in his approach to the job.

“Well, the one thing I know is [Calipari] is one of the greatest coaches to ever coach here,” Pope said Tuesday at a news conference in Lexington. “I mean, he went to four Final Fours in five years and coached a million draft picks and represented Kentucky really, really well and gave his heart and soul to this place. As [Big Blue Nation], and I’m just as much a member of [Big Blue Nation] as anyone, all of us will be grateful to him forever. And he’s a Hall of Fame coach.

“But one of the things that you learn really early on if you have great mentors in this game is that you just have to coach you. I have to be me. I can’t be [Rick Pitino], I can’t be [Tubby Smith], I can’t be [Calipari].”

In his first season, Pope will turn to a fleet of transfers, including former San Diego State star Lamont Butler and former BYU standout Jaxson Robinson, to lead the Wildcats through a stacked SEC slate full of national title contenders, including Calipari’s Razorbacks.

But Pope said he won’t do it by emulating Calipari or the other great coaches who’ve led Kentucky in the past.

“It would be disingenuous and my guys wouldn’t actually believe it if I tried to take on that persona or personality or even approach to the game,” Pope said. “We’re us. … I’m a big believer in what we do and I love our staff. I think right now we’re just trying to do everything we can to build on this incredible legacy that is Kentucky basketball and do it the way that we know how to do it and really believe it’s going to work.”

Kentucky will face Arkansas just once this season, and the game will be played in Rupp Arena. Pope said Calipari has been helpful throughout his transition despite any animosity that might remain between the fan base and the former Wildcats coach.

“[Calipari] has been super generous,” Pope said. “I’ve had a chance to speak with him several times. He’s always been generous. Throughout my whole career, he’s been so great to me. But as you step into this job, this is one of a kind. We’ve got to go do this the best way we can.”

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