Rick Pitino accepts Mark Pope’s offer for Kentucky-St. John’s home-and-home series

EditorLast Update :
Rick Pitino accepts Mark Pope’s offer for Kentucky-St. John’s home-and-home series

LEXINGTON, Ky. — While we’re doing homecomings at Kentucky, might as well bring Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino back, right? That must-see return is apparently now imminent, if only for a day.

Mark Pope, the captain of Pitino’s 1996 national championship team at UK, is now the Wildcats’ head coach, and one of the many loud cheers he received from the packed Rupp Arena crowd during his introductory press conference on Sunday came after this line: “Anybody here down for a game versus St. John’s?”

Pitino, who just finished his first season as St. John’s head coach, responded on Monday via social media, accepting the invitation.

“This year at UK, next year at the Mecca!” Pitino wrote, referring to Madison Square Garden in New York as the site of the return game. Pitino continued that he was “looking forward to saying goodbye” to a place he’s always called Camelot. Bringing Pitino back to Rupp could provide closure for both the coach and a fan base that has loved and hated him, the latter coming after he left Kentucky for the NBA, only to return to Rupp as coach of rival Louisville.

So does that mean the series is a done deal? Probably, if it’s what Pope wants. He also floated the idea Sunday of a return to the Maui Invitational, a beloved early-season tournament predecessor John Calipari had refused to play in since 2010.

“If that’s something he wants to do, that’s fine,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. “If it’s something that helps in recruiting, if it’s something he thinks is good for our program, then this is his program. He’s gotta design it. Cal designed it his way, and now Mark is in the chair and he gets to design it his way. And if that’s something he says, ‘I want to do,’ then we’ll support that and figure it out.”

Bringing his former coach home to mend old wounds and be honored for reviving a nearly dead program in the early 1990s is obviously important to Pope.

“Coach Pitino changed me,” he said Sunday. “And I will tell you, like, he changed me to my soul, changed my DNA as a human being. He allowed me to be someone who feels like they can walk into any room and take on any impossible task. And I will love him forever. So I say (let’s play) St. John’s because I have so much admiration for him. He is the best that did it.”

Required reading

• Mark Pope makes believers out of Kentucky fans in rousing Rupp Arena introduction

(Photo: Clare Grant / Courier Journal / USA Today)