Hogs’ hire of Calipari creates a seismic shift across college hoops landscape

Kentucky coach John Calipari, center, celebrates with his team after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against Kansas on April 2, 2012 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

What kind of news could eclipse Monday’s total solar eclipse that the Natural State will experience around 1:30 p.m.?

How about the University of Arkansas hiring longtime Kentucky coach John Calipari as its next basketball coach?

That’ll do pig, that’ll do.

It’s not an April Fool’s joke, either. That was a week ago, prior to Eric Musselman announcing his departure from the UA to take the head basketball coaching job at Southern Cal last Thursday.

Multiple local and national news sources began reporting Sunday evening that a deal between the Razorbacks and Calipari was being negotiated, but around 9 p.m. the story shifted to Calipari and the UA finalizing a reported five-year deal for in excess of $7 million a season with rumored assurances of $6 million a year in Name, Image, and Likeness funds for Calipari and his staff to procure talent.

Currently Arkansas has only two scholarship players that have not entered the transfer portal since the end of the season in 6-10 forward Trevon Brazile and one incoming freshman in 6-5 guard Isaiah Elohim.

Transfer portal entries like Tramon Mark, Layden Blocker, Devo Davis, Baye Fall, and Khalif Battle could return to Arkansas if Calipari wants them and if they would like to return. There is a possibility some talent could follow Calipari to Arkansas from Kentucky, as well.

Calipari’s longtime friendship with John H. Tyson, a Springdale billionaire and former chief executive officer of Tyson Foods, evidently played a key role in stoking the ex-Kentucky coach’s interest in the Arkansas job.

Calipari, 65, was pursued by late Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles for the Hogs’ basketball coaching job in 2007 when he was the head coach at Memphis prior to Arkansas finally hiring John Pelphrey.

Calipari said in an interview that he was impressed with Broyles and the Arkansas position at the time, but he had a team at Memphis that was poised to compete for a national title. Calipari’s Tigers made it to the NCAA Tournament championship game in the 2007-08 season, but lost 75-68 to Kansas in overtime.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari shakes hands with Arkansas guard Dusty Hannahs after an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the Southeastern Conference tournament Sunday, March 12, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. Kentucky won 82-65. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky in 2009, where his 2012 squad won the national championship. His Wildcats also made the Final Four in 2011, 2014, and 2015. He also led UMass to the Final Four in 1998.

Calipari is perhaps the most decorated active coach in college basketball. He has had 29 20-win seasons, 11 30-win seasons, and five 35-win seasons. He has an all-time record of 813-260 (.758).

Calipari is already a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and has won the Naismith College Coach of the Year Award in 1996, 2008, and 2015. At Kentucky, his Wildcats won six SEC regular-season titles as well as six SEC Conference Tournaments.

Though Calipari’s Wildcats only missed one NCAA Tournament during his tenure as head coach, Kentucky fans had grown impatient with “below expected” results in recent seasons, including a first-round upset loss to 14-seeded Oakland two weeks ago in the NCAA Tournament.

Calipari’s job status at Kentucky drew great speculation until athletics director Mitch Barnhart issued a statement on March 27 that Calipari would be retained as coach. Had Kentucky dismissed him, UK would have owed Calipari $33 million on his contract. He comes to Arkansas without the Razorbacks having to pay a buyout.

While many Kentucky fans had become dissatisfied or bored with Calipari, it’s a jab to their pride that Calipari picked fellow SEC member Arkansas for his exit strategy from the Big Blue Nation.

Late Saturday there were some rumors that Calipari had interest in the Arkansas job, but reports were that Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek had interviews planned or already conducted with UALR coach and former Razorback All-American Darrell Walker, Mississippi State coach Chris Jans, and McNeese State coach Will Wade.

Arkansas reportedly was close to making a deal with Ole Miss coach Chris Beard on Thursday, but by Friday morning the deal had broken down because of a snag over a non-compete clause. Kansas State coach Jerome Tang spoke to Arkansas about the job, but opted to stay in Manhattan after KSU sweetened his deal.

Arkansas’ fan base grew frustrated with Yurachek’s swings and misses with their consternation growing more and more hostile Saturday and into Sunday on social media.

Kentucky coach John Calipari talks to his bench while playing Arkansas during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

However, many Razorback fans changed their tune when word about an imminent deal with Calipari began to spread after dinner time Sunday night.

Certainly, there are extenuating circumstances concerning Calipari’s happiness at Kentucky that played a huge role in bringing him to Arkansas, but still this is a huge hire for Yurachek and the UA and a fresh chapter for Calipari as he nears the end of his career.

While the Razorbacks have had a number of ultra successful coaches ply their trade On the Hill in an array of sports, Calipari is the most prominent, successful, and accomplished coach at the time of his hire to ever join the Razorback program.

Coaches like John McDonnell, Frank Broyles, Nolan Richardson, Lance Harter, Dave Van Horn, Norm DeBriyn, Eddie Sutton, Lou Holtz, Ken Hatfield, Bobby Petrino, and Houston Nutt had not accomplished nearly as much as Calipari had when each of them arrived at Arkansas.

Longtime Arkansas fans who remember Sutton’s departure from Arkansas to be the Wildcats’ head coach after the 1985 season will no doubt recognize the parallels of Calipari’s exit from Kentucky and his arrival at Arkansas.

Sutton said he would have “crawled” to Kentucky from Arkansas when he was hired by the Wildcats as a parting jab at Broyles. We’ll have to wait and see if Calipari takes any such pokes at Kentucky’s Barnhart when he is introduced as the Head Hog.

Hiring Calipari is a move that not only affects Arkansas and the SEC, but it is going to send shockwaves reverberating around the nation. When Kentucky fills its job, it will create a wave of openings throughout the college-basketball landscape.

Only time will tell how Calipari’s tenure at Arkansas will ultimately work out. Calipari’s age suggests he is not likely to coach at Arkansas much longer than his five-year contract. Calipari is already a year older than John Wooden was when he retired at UCLA in 1975.

But, the next few seasons ought to be very interesting for the Razorback basketball program and their fans as Calipari attempts to succeed at Arkansas like he has at every other stop during his career.