At this time of year, something would grab hold of Mark Pope, causing him to reexamine his long-term, best-laid plans.

Back then, he was attending Columbia University’s renowned Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, on track to become a medical doctor.

That something that would cause Pope to think again about his career path, against all logic and conventional wisdom? 

“It got to March, and I’m so embarrassed to say this,” Pope recalled. “March Madness was going on. I missed it.” 

Yes, in the spring this young man’s fancy turned to thoughts of college basketball. The magnetic pull of the NCAA Tournament can be powerful. 

It wasn’t like Pope didn’t enjoy medicine, but the sport had sunk deep in his soul. At the same time, he wasn’t sure about the coaching profession. It was quite a conundrum. 

As a player, Pope had reached the pinnacle, winning a national championship with Kentucky in 1996. Now, 25 years after that title run, and a dozen years after becoming a coach, Pope will take the national stage at the NCAA Tournament again, in a different role. 

Pope is in his second season at the helm at BYU (20-6), and in his sixth season overall as a head coach. He will be part of his first game as a head coach in the NCAA Tournament Saturday (7:40 p.m. MDT, CBS) when the sixth-seeded Cougars face the winner of Thursday’s play-in game between a pair of No. 11 seeds, Michigan State and UCLA, in the first round at legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It marks BYU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years. 

March Madness is going on. And the 6-foot-10 Pope isn’t missing it this time. He’s right in the middle of it. 

Pope was supposed to have experienced this as a head coach last year, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. His focus right now, as usual, is on his players rather than on himself. 

“I’ve been thinking about our guys from last year a lot, our senior class. My emotions have been with this year’s team and everything they’ve gone through this year to build themselves,” he said. “That is what the NCAA Tournament is. That’s what we’re in right now. It’s beautiful. There are 68 teams that get to take their swing at leaving their mark on this tournament. And that’s exhilarating. This is their chance to have ‘One Shining Moment.’ … This tournament is the greatest sporting event in the world. These guys now have a chance to have their moment.”

‘I don’t know if this is for me’

So what about the unusual, improbable journey Pope traversed to arrive here? How did he go from doctor-to-be to a college coach? Why did he trade in his stethoscope for a whistle? 

Well, it required a massive leap of faith some 12 years ago. 

After his college career, Pope spent seven chaotic years playing professionally, most of that time in the NBA, some overseas. Did he really want to jump into the turbulent coaching profession? Did he want his life to revolve around basketball again? He already knew what the job was like from a players’ perspective. And also from a daughter’s perspective. His wife, Lee Anne, experienced it firsthand — her dad, Lynn Archibald, was the head coach at Utah and later an assistant at BYU. 

No sightseeing. No eating out. And Mark Pope doesn’t care

There was a lot to consider for the Popes. 

Mark and Lee Anne had purchased a home in Scarsdale, New York, and they were raising their young daughters. The Popes figured their lives would be immersed in medicine. 

“There was something we thought would be really therapeutic and wonderful about being in an established profession where you knew what you were going to be doing for the next 40 years,” he said. “And also, an opportunity to serve, which is the heart of that profession when it’s done right. We invested a lot financially, too. We were going to get to choose where we were going to live. We had dreams of spending the rest of our lives in New York somehow, if we could get a residency somewhere in the Northeast and we could choose to spend the rest of our lives there.” 

But Pope would wonder if there were something else he was destined to do. 

“Mark was in med school and he was doing great. After working so hard, we went to New York thinking we’d be there forever. We both love New York,” Lee Anne said. “He would say, ‘These kids in med school are passionate. It’s what they think about all the time. I don’t feel that way about medicine.’ In his self-deprecating way, he’d say, ‘I’m not smart enough to be a doctor. I’d rather my kids go to them than to me.’” 

Lee Anne Pope, wife of BYU basketball coach Mark Pope, talks about her husband’s NBA career at BYU in Provo on Feb 26, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When Mark worked in the pediatric emergency room at Columbia, he did what came naturally, using his gifts that enable him to connect with people. 

“We were gravitating toward ER medicine had we stayed on that path,” Lee Anne said. “He was so great with the kids. He could communicate with those kids. It came up over and over how good he was with the kids. He’s such a natural dad.”

When Mark would work in the psych unit, he’d play chess with the patients. He’d high-five everyone. 

“He was just being Mark,” Lee Anne said. 

One time, a doctor took Mark aside in the hallway. She told him, “You can’t do that.”

“What?” Mark said.

“You high-five the patients and they might scrub their hands until they bleed,” she said. “You’ve got to tone it down. You can’t interact like that. You can’t touch the patients.”

What does BYU think about potential opponents UCLA and Michigan State?

Mark wasn’t aware. “Oh, my bad,” he replied. 

“There were some moments when Mark told me, ‘I don’t know if this is for me,’” Lee Anne said. 

The decision

Standing at a crossroads, the Popes had to figure out their future.

“It was probably the hardest decision Lee Anne and I ever made together,” Mark said. “If there’s anybody that knows how tenuous the profession is, it’s Lee Anne. When I was in the NBA, we had lived our life in total chaos every single day about having no idea what the next day would bring.”

Pope had talked with some coaches after his first year of med school and all of them had the same message: “Don’t you dare leave medical school. Why would you ever join this profession?”

Pope consulted his college coach, Rick Pitino, who guided Iona to an NCAA Tournament berth this season. Pitino told him, “Coaching is the greatest thing ever. If it’s what you want to do, you’d be great at it.”

The next morning, Pitino called Pope back and tried to talk him out of leaving med school. 

“So you don’t want to be a doctor? Because you should only do this if this is the only thing you want to do,” Pitino said. “If it’s the only thing you want to do, then coach. But if you can be a doctor …”

Three years in med school passed as the Popes grappled with their future. After talking to coach Mark Fox, a good friend who had just been hired as the head coach at Georgia, Pope was offered a job there as an assistant basketball operations director.  

“It was a really hard decision,” Pope said. “We really struggled because we had invested so much. We were super prayerful about the decision.”

Ultimately, the Popes decided to dive headlong into the world of coaching. He’s always embraced aspirations that are outside his comfort zone while relishing in the process.

Before his fourth year of med school, Pope walked into the dean’s office and told her he was leaving. 

“She was 100% convinced that I was on drugs. Then I jumped in the car and drove to Georgia. I drove all night. I got there in time to do an elite camp. It was just the greatest confirmation ever that this was the decision we were supposed to make.” — Mark Pope recounting when he told the dean of his medical school of his decision to pursue coaching instead of medicine

“She was 100% convinced that I was on drugs,” Pope said. “Then I jumped in the car and drove to Georgia. I drove all night. I got there in time to do an elite camp. It was just the greatest confirmation ever that this was the decision we were supposed to make.

“It was super scary, too. The profession’s really hard and there’s no guarantee that you’re going to have any future in it,” he continued. “And I was starting at the bottom, bottom level. But I was starting with a coach that I deeply respected and trusted. We were leaving a lot — a really good life. But we believed it was the right thing to do. That first moment that I was on the court, and every day since, I’m the most blessed person in the world that I get to do this.”

‘One of the best coaches in the country’

After spending a year at Georgia, followed by a season at Wake Forest, Pope landed an assistant coaching job under Dave Rose at BYU. He was in Provo from 2011-15 before being hired as the head coach at Utah Valley University, where he spent four more years.

BYU head coach Dave Rose, left, and assistant coach Mark Pope argue a call with a referee as BYU and San Francisco play Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 in the Marriott Center. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Jake Toolson, who played for Pope at both UVU and last season at BYU, is happy to see Pope finally get his shot at the NCAA Tournament as a head coach. 

“That’s one of the coolest parts about this. He’s been a coach for a while and the goal every year is to make the tournament,” Toolson said. “For him to be able to be there now and for people to start to recognize what he’s capable of and what his teams do consistently, it’s pretty cool. He’s one of the best coaches in the country and people are starting to notice that.

“March is the biggest stage. If they don’t know by now, they’re going to know here soon. He has his team playing the right way and playing their best basketball of the season in March. It’s no coincidence that every year, every team that he coaches does that.”

In two years at BYU, Pope has compiled a 44-14 record. The Cougars are a single-digit seed for the first time since 2011, when they advanced to the Sweet 16 with National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette. 

Those who know Pope aren’t surprised by his coaching success. 

“Mark’s going to be successful in whatever he does,” said Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg, who was one of Pope’s NBA teammates. “He would have been a great doctor but it’s worked out for him.”

“Mark’s going to be successful in whatever he does. He would have been a great doctor but it’s worked out for him.” — Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg

Lee Anne is asked from time to time how she let her husband drop out of medical school. 

“We made the decision together. We made the decision to go to med school and leave med school together. I knew exactly what we were getting into,” she said. “Mark’s work ethic, planning ahead and being not afraid … none of those decisions were made lightly. It’s where his passion lies. It all fits Mark. Our lives make sense because of Mark. He would have been a great doctor. He loves coaching. Seeing him with the players, it draws on all of his gifts and strengths.”

Embracing the NCAA Tournament experience

Senior guard Alex Barcello, who transferred to BYU from Arizona in 2019, credits Pope for rejuvenating his career and his love for basketball. He’s proud to be part of Pope’s first NCAA Tournament team. 

Kentucky center Mark Pope goes to the basket during NCAA Southeast Regional championship on Saturday, March 25, 1995 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in Birmingham, Ala. Pope won a national title during his days as a player in Lexington, and now is eager to coach a team for the first time in the Big Dance. | Dave Martin, Associated Press

“Only we know how hard it was to get to this point, how hard we had to work. The ups and downs that we had this season, it means everything to me,” Barcello said. “He had a trust and belief in me to come here and play at this high level and the vision that he had for my career personally and the vision he had for our entire team. It means a lot to me and to our team. We’re going to do everything we can to take coach and our team as far as we can.”

While Pope knows the exhilaration of experiencing a “One Shining Moment” himself, having won a national championship, he wants his players to appreciate this monumental opportunity, no matter how it ends.  

“What I’m most interested in sharing with the guys is just how magnificent this tournament is. Just how special it is,” he said. “If I could give my players anything, I would want them to feel about this event like I feel about it. It is one of the most extraordinary experiences that I will ever have in my lifetime, about all the history and all the moments and all the fight and the sweat and blood and tears that have gone into this. Now, these guys get to take their shot.”

After three rigorous years of med school, followed by years climbing up the capricious coaching ladder, Pope has found his home, his true calling. At BYU. In the middle of March Madness.