UGA assistant Pope makes interesting career choice

No, today, residing at the sub-flooring level of the Georgia basketball organizational chart, he has other work. The 6-foot-10 one-time national champion/NBA survivor/med student handles the smallest details for the Bulldogs, anything from socks to jocks to keeping the student managers on task.

All at the princely salary of $35,000 a year.

But Pope does instruct in his own way, just by the curious choices he made to get here and way those choices challenge conventional ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

Could you do what Pope did? Could you trash three years of an Ivy League med school education at age 37 — with a wife and four young daughters back home — and start over as a wannabe coach?

"I never made a decision that took more courage," he said of quitting in the middle of his medical studies at Columbia to take this low-level job on the chance it might lead to something in coaching.

He is rewriting his dream. In its current form, he sees himself one day returning to the gym to meld diverse groups of players and coaches into functioning families, something Pope rhapsodizes about as a "magical process," "an enticing, alluring process."

But to get there he had to start here. He had to be a gnat in Mark Fox's ear, incessant until the coach found a place for him at Georgia.

Everything but coach

There were no coaching openings. Just as well. For Fox believes in a thorough apprenticeship, where each man learns the basics first. He made Pope, a player he had coached while working as an assistant at Washington, the operations coordinator, a 500-pound title for a lightweight job.

"I told Mark if you want to be good at this profession," Fox said, "you have to learn it from the bottom up. You have to count shoestrings and manage equipment and do all the things he's doing now. Ultimately, when he becomes a head coach, he's had experience in every part of the profession."

Since the Bulldogs already had their NCAA maximum number of coaches, Pope does everything except coach. He must tread a fine boundary between what's kosher and not.

"Right now, I'm doing a lot of the academic work [with players]. I get to do some of the scheduling, travel stuff. I'm over the managers, trying to help them sort out their stuff. I do the laundry. I pack bags. I count guys' socks; do all that stuff I have to know. It's frustrating at times. I can't touch players; I can't coach players."

How much can a proud person swallow? Pope had won a national title — he transferred from Washington to Kentucky in time to catch the 1996 wave — and then through sheer stubbornness lasted portions of six seasons with four different teams in the NBA.

And now he's packing a kid's bag for a road trip to Starkville?

"A lot of guys who played in NBA have sense of entitlement," Fox said. "Mark has none of that arrogance about him."

In fact, Pope almost goes overboard the other way, reducing his time in the NBA to a Bob Uecker-esque routine of how untalented he was.

He launches into a version: "George [Karl, his coach in Milwaukee in 2000-02] once said, 'The best thing about Mark Pope is he knows how to stay out of the way.'

"Any list of the worst players to ever stick around the league for five-plus years, I'd have to be in the top 10.

"I think I've been in the league because I worked harder than anyone else. I've been in the league because I stayed in the gym all the time. I've been in the league because I tried to understand every single thing the coach understood and tried to implement it the best I could. And I'm proud of that.

"I stink as a ballplayer, that's the bottom line, and I'm OK with that."

He already has it all figured out, how to employ this shtick when he's a coach. His perceived professional failings will come in handy one day.

"It is going to be useful to look [one of his players] in the eyes and say, 'You know what, you're a better player than I ever was. If your dream is to make it in the league and you don't, shame on you. Because there's no excuse. You can't say you weren't good enough. You can't say you got cheated. Because you're 10 times better than I ever was."

Didn't really belong

The Big Question that Pope, and anyone else, must answer sometime in life is, what is my purpose?

"What is more noble work than being a physician?" Pope himself concedes.

He had laid all this groundwork to be one of those rare breakaway athletes, one determined to do something special with his intellect after the playing was done. At every stop in the league, he'd take science courses to beef up his pre-med resume. And then, when it was time to take the medical school leap, he would go head first, into Columbia.

Pope said he was doing well, on track to begin residency in just a little more than a year. But despite the head-down, straight-ahead approach a med student must take, once in a while, he'd look up.

And he'd recognize moments when he didn't really belong, like the time working a rotation in the psych wing when the attending doctor told him it really wasn't alright to high-five patients as he walked the hall.

And he'd see these kids — Pope was always the elder in class — who seemed to have so much more passion for the work.

"The way those kids felt about school is the way I felt about the gym," he said. "These kids knew what they were going to do, and they were great at it. They woke up in the morning dying to get to it and stayed up all night because they loved it so much."

"He never showed that he was miserable in med school," said Pope's wife, Lee Ann. "But now you can see that he is in his environment. Oh, this is right. He is energized."

She left a pretty sweet gig herself after marrying Pope and beginning some serious family-raising. For four years, she was a personal assistant to David Letterman.

She also is the daughter of a former college basketball coach, which also helps explain why she is such a willing participant in this jarring mid-life course correction.

Granted, the financial risk is buffered by the fact Pope had some good, six-figure earning years in the NBA. But there are plenty of other risks to take its place. In medicine, there would have been a guaranteed place for him. Because, yes, it is easier to become a doctor than one of just more than 300 Division I head basketball coaches.

People all the time try to find a different way to tell Pope just how daft he is to be doing this.

Even Barbara Dooley didn't know what to make of the med school dropout on their first meeting. The Bulldogs doyenne paid him a compliment by noting that he didn't seem nearly as wacky as she thought he'd be. And this was a woman whose son Derek quit a law practice to launch his own coaching career. Last week, he was named head football coach at Tennessee.

Pope's wife never needed much convincing. But one moment just last week reinforced her belief in her husband's quest. As she and the children walked into the house after a weekend trip to Orlando, there was Pope on the floor, drawing offenses on a dry erase board, completely absorbed.

Fox, too, is convinced. "Mark is a very passionate person, very intelligent," said the Bulldogs coach. "He has a real love for the game and a real love for young people, and this profession needs both of those. That's why I think he will be very good at it."

Medicine's loss is the triangle offense's gain.

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