Life can change in the blink of an eye, or in the case of Mark Pope, it can by altered by someone else deciding to keep things the same.

When Baylor coach Scott Drew told Kentucky no to becoming the next Wildcats head coach, it turned to one of its own — Pope. The captain of Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team eagerly offered the three-letter word they had been denied by several other prominent candidates — yes!

Pope will get paid millions to build a contender in Lexington while his roster left behind in Provo teeters on a collapse. Prior to Pope’s departure, he and his staff expected most of last year’s NCAA Tournament team to return and one of the highest-rated recruits in school history to join them.

Like an opening tipoff, today that ball is up in the air and the number of players who will stay is anybody’s guess, but it’s going to get choppy. Coaching uncertainty in college sports is a tool for the opposition. Sharks always show up when there is blood in the water. Pope might even poach some of the kids to go with him.

The question for players on the current roster is this: Why did you choose to play at BYU? If it was solely because of the coach and his exceptional staff, then an exodus makes perfect sense; however, if it was also because of the BYU education, athletic tradition and lifestyle, then skipping town on a whim becomes harder to do.

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It would be naïve to think that today’s typical athlete doesn’t select a school based on the coach, conference and NIL opportunities. We see the ebb and flow of that process every day on social media. But not everybody thinks that way. For some, playing at a place like BYU is bigger than any one person and its potential lifelong impact can leave room for redecorating, even replacing the furniture.

That is what Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, Noah Waterman, Trevin Knell, Aly Khalifa, Fousseyni Traore, Atiki Ally Atiki, Dawson Baker, Trey Stewart and Jaxson Robinson must decide for themselves. Incoming recruits Collin Chandler and Isaac Davis face the same question. Did they choose BYU or just the staff?

Pope isn’t the only departure to consider. His respected assistants Nick Robinson, Cody Fueger and Collin Terry could also be gone. Former assistant and defensive specialist Kahil Fennell left last week for the head job at UT-Rio Grande Valley.

The freedom of the transfer portal will allow players to go wherever they are invited. No matter who leaves, what will remain is BYU’s presence in the toughest basketball conference in the country, which will add Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado next winter.

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In addition, the fans that helped turn the Marriott Center into a nightmare for opponents like San Diego State, Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State, Baylor and UCF will be back, just as they have always been since the facility opened its doors in 1972.

The fanfare will roll on. The lights will still go down, the curtains will drop, the ROC will rock and Cougartails will remain available at the concession stands. In addition, BYUtv will keep offering the kind of exposure for student-athletes that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Without question, losing Pope to Kentucky is a significant loss for BYU and a blow to its momentum, but it’s not the end. Far from it. The program, school and church it represents is bigger than Pope just as it was bigger than Dave Rose, Steve Cleveland, Roger Reid, Frank Arnold and all the others.

It’s the current roster that must decide if BYU is still big enough for them.

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Change is uncomfortable, but it is constant, and it is everywhere. SMU, USC, Louisville, Arkansas, West Virginia, Washington, Michigan, Stanford, DePaul, Fresno State, Indiana State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Pacific, Pepperdine, Saint Louis, Utah State, Vanderbilt and a growing list of other programs all have new head coaches this spring and each is dealing with a former roster of kids wondering what it means for them. BYU will join the list as soon as Pope’s replacement is hired.

The portal is a popular place. Today, there are over 1,500 players in there who believe they will find a landing spot that is better than the place they jumped from. Some will, but many won’t. While the portal offers this new option of mobility, the old proverb is as relevant as ever — “Look before you leap.”

Yes, life can change quickly. Just 12 months ago, Pope could have been dismissed for finishing in fifth place for a second straight year in the WCC. This April, after an inspiring Big 12 debut, he is off to coach one of the most storied basketball programs in America.

To his credit, he has put Cougar basketball in a better place and BYU has done the same thing for him. No one should blame Pope for taking his dream job and no one should believe that the fate of BYU basketball went with him.

Change happens. Change is here. Now we wait to see how many on the roster do what Baylor’s Scott Drew did when facing a game-changing decision. He opted to keep things the same and stay put.

BYU guard Dallin Hall celebrates the win over UCF during the Big 12 conference championship in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. With news that coach Mark Pope is leaving for Kentucky, players like Hall have a decision to make. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News