Mark Pope, the new Kentucky basketball head coach, is in a tough position following John Calipari. While the end of the Calipari era likely left many Wildcats fans with a bitter taste in their mouths, Calipari's ability to recruit can make expectations possibly too high for Pope to reach. But it looks like Pope has already recruited an overseas prospect: the actual Pope, Pope Francis.

Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports recently published an article detailing how Pope Francis received (and really liked) a Mark Pope Kentucky basketball jersey. As Eisenberg reported, the main man to thank is Jim Sichoko, a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Lexington who was about to head to the Vatican when he thought to ask Eli Capilouto, the University of Kentucky's president, for a favor.

“Here I was going to meet the Pope,” Sichko told Yahoo Sports. “I thought it would be neat if I could get a jersey with ‘Pope' on it.”

When the opportunity arose, Sichko handed the jersey, which had the number 23 to signify Mark Pope becoming Kentucky's 23rd head men's basketball coach, to Pope Francis, which apparently “delighted” the pontiff.

“He was really enthralled by it,” Sichko said. “Usually he hands off the gifts he receives to his assistants to put in plastic containers, but this one he folded and he kept on his lap. He was very intrigued by it.”

The Mark Pope era begins at Kentucky

A Kentucky basketball fan in a pope costume at Mark Pope's introductory press conference.

Mark Pope is a Kentucky alum, having played two seasons and spending three seasons in Lexington in the mid-1990s. Pope was instrumental in the Wildcats' 1996 national championship season, and after a nearly decade-long professional career, Pope embarked on a career in coaching.

He got his start at Georgia under Mark Fox before spending a season at Wake Forest and then landing an assistant coaching job on Dave Rose's staff at BYU. Pope spent four seasons in Provo until he received his first opportunity to be a head coach. Utah Valley gave him that chance, and while he failed to make an NCAA tournament appearance in his four seasons with the Wolverines, Pope ensured each season was better than the last.

After a 12-18 record in Pope's first season, Utah Valley improved to 17-17 in Year 2, 23-11 in Year 3, and 25-10 in Year 4. Pope led Utah Valley to the College Basketball Invitational in each of his last three seasons, becoming the first coach since the program moved to Division I with three postseason appearances.

His work at Utah Valley, in addition to his assistant coaching experience at BYU, helped him land the Cougars' job when Rose retired in 2019. In his five seasons at BYU, Pope led the team to four 20-win seasons and two NCAA tournament appearances. But the Cougars did not win a tournament game during his tenure, which gave many fans pause when Pope's hiring at Kentucky was reported.

Since his hiring, Pope has attempted to build a roster that was decimated by the NBA Draft and John Calpari's departure for SEC foe Arkansas. To replace the likes of Zvonimir Ivisic, Adou Thiero, DJ Wagner, Rob Dillingham, and Reed Sheppard, Pope has earned the commitments of West Virginia's Kerr Kriisa, Drexel's Amari Williams, and San Diego State's Lamont Butler, among others.