May 25, 2024

John Calipari hits ground running in Arkansas after ugly final chapter at Kentucky that ‘sucks’


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The new guy in town regrets the optics. A sterile corner office overlooking Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena is, for now, a muted tribute to what is about to take place. 

“They’ve got this a little bit like a dentist’s office, so I apologize,”  John Calipari says, stepping out from behind an empty desk. 

Things will soon be cluttered, complicated and all-consuming for the Hogs’ new basketball coach — just not today. Coach Cal has his first new job in 15 years. He must meet people, reveal the personality that comes up on you like a three-quarter court press. Not all of those people are the much-scrutinized recruits who are populating that empty roster Calipari referred to in his introductory press conference

Some of them are holy. 

“We sleep pig and wake pig,” said Father Jason Sharbaugh, who has already spotted Cal on campus at mass. “It’s all the more sweet having Coach in.”

Some of them are tolerated. For now, the hall-of-fame coach is sharing a temporary condo with his son Brad near the center of the campus entertainment district, Dickson Street.

“They said to me, ‘It may get a little loud. It’s down by the strip,’ Calipari explained. “I was there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. No problem. Friday? One place has live music, the other has karaoke, the other has a DJ.

“The whole room is like shaking from [the noise]. I’m sleeping with ear plugs.”

Some — well, one — is a billionaire.

“One of the things Coach Cal does is he out-cares any coach in America,” said John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, close friend and driving force behind Calipari taking the job. “If you do it the right way, the derivative of that is you might win the national championship.”

That’s really what this is all about, isn’t it? Not just the possibility of a natty, the actual documented proof of concept. Calipari has won one among his 855 career victories. His bona fides also include six Final Fours, 12 Elite Eights and 15 Sweet 16s.

None of them lately, of course, but at age 65, Arkansas has become the next podium from which Cal can preach. Yes, Calipari has reached retirement age, but looks 55 and has more left in the tank than an Escalade. Never one to leave flair on the bench, the coach’s departure from Kentucky was as shocking as his arrival here was spectacular.

It was both the suddenness — and the destination — that astounded. Arkansas? Hogs everywhere love their hoops.


“I grew up on that action,” said Sharbaugh, pastor of University of Arkansas Newman Center Parish. “I just love the game. Next to Jesus, it’s the hottest thing in the universe.”

But it’s also fair to point out Arkansas’ place in the sporting universe. The Razorbacks last won 11 football games in 2011. A few months later coach Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle with a woman on board from the staff who was not his wife. Scandal ensued. 

Nolan Richardson won Arkansas’ last and only basketball championship in 1994. Eric Musselman contributed two Elite Eights in five seasons before leaving last month for … USC.

“You could see that coach Musselman had a desire — if maybe the right job opened up on the West Coast — to go home,” Tyson said. 

It’s additionally fair, then, to assert this is the biggest hire in the school’s athletic history. Arkansas coaches have come from Kentucky (John Pelphrey played for the Wildcats) and gone to Kentucky (Eddie Sutton) but there has been nothing like this. 

The likes of Frank Broyles, Sutton and Richardson pretty much made their bones here. Lou Holtz won a conference title, but bolted to Minnesota before finding the crest of his career at Notre Dame. 

Legends, all of them, but Calipari comes prepackaged — oozing championship pedigree. He’s got the blueprint stored in the synapses somewhere underneath that perfectly quaffed ‘do. Just step aside and let him show you. It’s expected, actually. 

“I made the analogy, this like you have a worldwide company and it’s in New York … and you’re being encouraged by another area,” Calipari told CBS Sports. “So you move the headquarters.”

From CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander to Jay Bilas, virtually all the game’s tastemakers hailed Calipari’s move as a multi-level win — for Cal, for Arkansas, for Kentucky — for college basketball. 

All of them got a reset. Of course, Cal’s move can’t be recounted without a reminder that a sizable amount of Big Blue Nation wanted him gone. To that, well, Calipari can’t wait to respond. 

“I think some people were happy,” the coach said of his departure from Kentucky. “[Some were saying], ‘We’ve had this guy 15 years and we’ve only won 500 games.’ [Actually 410] We only won one national title and four Final Fours and eight Elite Eights? What the hell is going on here?'”

The sarcasm might as well be dripping from the ceiling. Calipari then launched into slice-of-life memories from going back to Lexington, Kentucky, for a day before his exit. Folks were yelling, “We love you.” A couple pulled their car over to wish him well. At Panera “one of the ladies came from the back in tears to hug me,” Cal said.

And now he is theirs again, only here. 

“I’m a poor, miserable sinner,” Calipari said. “Please, That’s who I am. I hope I have a good heart for kids and their families. I’m not a magician and I don’t have a magic wand.”

If not, he’s got rights to the best set of card tricks ever seen.  

Regardless, Arkansas has proved it is all in. There is already talk of a monster NIL war chest. As of Tuesday, the once-depleted Arkansas roster now includes seven scholarship players. Two Kentucky players have transferred to Arkansas — Adou Thiero and Zvonimor Ivišić. FAU transfer Johnell Davis, one of the best talents in the portal, led the Owls to the 2023 Final Four. Tennessee transfer Jonas Aidoo averaged 11 and 7 for the Vols. 247Sports currently has Calipari’s first Arkansas class No. 6 nationally, third in the SEC.

Think of what is at stake, not only Arkansas’ basketball future but Kentucky’s basketball brand. What if the Hogs edge past the Wildcats on the national scene at some point with Calipari?


The transition has been swift and impressive. It was made clear by Cal there will be competition at Arkansas for a tight rotation. The Division I maximum is 13 scholarships per team. Who actually plays is another thing. 

“I enjoyed coaching last year. I had a ball, but that was hard,” Calipari said. “Then Reed Sheppard decides to become [SEC] Freshman of the Year. I asked him after the season, ‘How much did you expect to play?’ He said, ‘Ah, I thought I’d be carrying water.’ Did you expect to leave here after the season? He said, ‘Coach, I expected to be here all four years.’ ”

That’s a roundabout way of Cal saying he still has it. Sheppard left for the NBA after a year and is projected as a top-10 NBA Draft pick.  

“My thought was, ‘We’re going to get this,’ and we had a good group coming in … ,” Calipari continued. “It wasn’t like we were 15-15. But there’s an expectation where it’s only winning championships and winning that ‘ship. 

Arkansas fans couldnt wait to meet new basketball coach John Calipari.
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The Calipari rollout came on a recent rainy Wednesday night at Bud Walton. Calipari looked out of place at his introductory press conference. Watching him wear red Arkansas gear was like watching Derek Jeter in a Padres uniform instead of pinstripes. Some things just need getting used to. This was life-changing in a basketball sense. Ted Owens, the 94-year-old former Kansas coach who gave Calipari his first job, signaled that by making the trip over from Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

The only thing missing was Cal’s first public calling of the hogs. That’s coming too and will be a major event in these parts. 

“It gave [fans] a chance to really thump their chests and say, ‘Hey we got a blue blood’s head coach to come to our university and coach our men’s basketball team,'” Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek said. 

An athletic department whose budget was 10th among 14 SEC teams last year, has a modern superstar on the bench. A state of only 3 million people is hungry to rally around a gregarious legend from Moon Township, Pennsylvania who was once fired by the New Jersey Nets. 

 “I’m not going to try to get spiritual,” Calipari said. Then, of course, he did. 

“Something nudges you and you don’t know what it is,” the coach continued. “But I’ve been there [at Kentucky] 15 years. Maybe it’s ‘You’ve done what I needed you to do there for the kids, for the state. Now I need you to do something down there [at Arkansas].’ ”


The earth-bound driving force behind the hire certainly doesn’t want to be considered the driving force behind the hire. Tyson, 70, is certainly the basketball patriarch of this endeavor. Yes, he is the money man of many things in Arkansas. This one happens to be personal.

This is Tyson’s second run at Calipari. While Calipari was at Memphis in 2007, Tyson and Broyles reached out. Calipari couldn’t make himself leave his players — especially Derrick Rose — back then. Memphis then played for a national championship in 2008. 

“I think we were close [to getting him] but that’s when Cal said, ‘I’m committed to my kids,’ Tyson said. “Back then kids couldn’t move. Nowadays kids can move.”

Which kind of explains the game, the climate and the reason for the move.

Neither Calipari nor Tyson can remember the circumstances of their first meeting two decades ago. They bonded over talk of leadership. Tyson oversees a global food company headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas, that is second nationally in the processing of chicken, beef and pork. He reminisces lovingly about his late father, Don,  who admired Harry Truman so much his office is built in an oval shape for two reasons.

That imitates both Truman’s Oval Office and the shape of eggs laid by chickens that are so important to the company. 

Calipari specializes in shaping 18-year-olds into champions for the one of the biggest brands in college basketball. His players have signed NBA contracts worth more than $4 billion. 

That should be relatable to any CEO — or recruit. When Kentucky came to town Calipari would go out of his way to have Tyson at his courtside seat. Never mind Tyson being a huge Arkansas benefactor.

“He’s my friend first,” he said of Calipari.

They call each other youthful nicknames of endearment — Johnny. That’s why when Tyson said it’s fair to say things had gotten stale between the two parties at Kentucky it means something.

“I talk to my folks around here. There are cycles,” Tyson said. ‘Don’t tell me you’re going to retire at 65. There are business cycles. When we get to the end of the cycle, do you want to sign up for another cycle?’ ” 

You don’t have to be dunked on to get the connection. Cal has signed up for another cycle at Arkansas. And stale has different definitions. Calipari once consulted former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who lasted 13 years in the Big Blue maelstrom. 

“I stayed three years too many,” Calipari quoted Hall as telling him. 

Cal stayed at Kentucky two years beyond that. At the end of last season Tyson estimated there were three options for his friend  – stay with the Wildcats, chase a championship elsewhere or go do TV. 

“But he’s a competitor,” Tyson said.

“Last year revived me. I had so much fun with those kids and they celebrated each other,” Calipari said. “The way it ended … I’ll just say, sucks.”

The first-round loss to Oakland marked the third straight year UK finished short of the Sweet 16. The last time that happened was 2006-2008 under Tubby Smith and Billy Gillespie.

The Arkansas’ hiring process took less than three days. On April 4 Yurachek was in Phoenix for the Final Four. About 1 pm PT Musselman informed the AD he was taking the USC job. 

Tyson first called his coaching friend to ask if he’d speak to Yurachek about vetting candidates. Yurachek called Calipari that night. 

At some point Yurachek cut to the chase and asked Calipari if he was interested. 

“In my judgment as a businessman, either you go big [or not],” Tyson said. “When we were talking big, I threw out three names. I said, ‘Do you call Bill Self? Do you call Danny Hurley or do you call Coach Cal?

‘Or do you [hire], Chris Beard, Jerome Tang. In the business world you call that a lateral move. You go get somebody who knows how to do the business. You’re probably going to have to pay them a little more.”

It wasn’t until Yurachek and Calipari talked that they found out they were in the same city for unrelated reasons. Cal was in Phoenix for an NABC meeting. (He is the current president of the coaches’ organization.) Yurachek was also there for a meeting as a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. 

Calipari said any face-to-face meeting would have to happen quickly.

Tyson then told Yurachek he’d better have a plan. That is, aligning the support and resources of the university to make such a hire. In other words, John Calipari doesn’t have to interview for the job. He just has to want it.  

“Swing big … who would you hire?” Tyson emphasized. “Coach Cal, of course.”

The two sides connected. Calipari vetted Yurachek with Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who had worked under Yurachek, the former Cougars’ AD.  

Cal didn’t want the news to leak that he had been talking to Arkansas, stealing the spotlight from the Final Four. Then, of course, it leaked.

“I’m not mad about it,” Calipari said, “but it wasn’t me and then it was like an avalanche.”

Speculation and anticipation ran wild. By that Saturday night an oral agreement was close. Only a tight circle knew – Yurachek, Calipari, Cal’s lawyer Tom Mars and an Arkansas board member. That in itself was unique. Yurachek had once been named in a lawsuit filed by Mars who was representing former football coach Bret Bielema against the Arkansas Razorback Foundation.

“Hunter was a real pro. He was hands-on. I guess he forgave me for all the horrible things I said about him in the Bielema lawsuit,” Mars joked.

Attorney Matt McCoy, who oversees athletic department legal affairs, was looped in. 

“We just kept at it and got the contract finished Monday night,” said a source involved in the talks. “A land-speed record.” 

It helped that Cal didn’t have an agent, a rarity for someone of his stature. An agent would have taken approximately $1.225 million of the $35 million Calipari is earning over those five years in fees. An agent would have possibly extended the negotiations by weeks. 

Arkansas was indeed all in. The basketball world — no, American sports — gasped. Dickson Street had a new inhabitant.


In the middle of the interview in that sterile office, a familiar face ducked in the doorway.

“You good?” he said.

It was not some assistant doing a preplanned drop by to make sure the interview didn’t run too long. This was Brad Calipari, that 27-year-old coaches’ son and roommate who has moved over from the staff at Vanderbilt.

John Calipari indeed was good. For now.

“His mom is telling him to check on me every 30 minutes to see if I’m still alive,” the coach said. 





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