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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Arkansas hires John Calipari to coach the Razorbacks, a day after stepping down from Kentucky

    John Calipari answers questions from reporters after being introduced as Arkansas men's basketball coach Wednesday in Fayetteville, Ark. (Michael Woods/AP Photo)

    Fayetteville, Ark. — Fireworks went off as new Arkansas men's basketball coach John Calipari was introduced to fans at Bud Walton Arena.

    If his past success is an indicator, many more fireworks are forthcoming.

    Arkansas hired Calipari on Wednesday, a day after the Hall of Fame coach stepped down from the Kentucky program he led to the 2012 NCAA championship.

    Calipari is the winningest active coach in men’s college basketball, with a career record of 855-263 in stops at Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky. The 65-year-old has led his programs to six Final Fours and three national championship games. He has won numerous awards, including AP Coach of the Year in 2015.

    Calipari signed a five-year contract with an annual base salary of $7 million through April 2029 with a maximum of two automatic rollover years for NCAA Tournament appearances that would extend the contract to 2031. The deal includes a $1 million signing bonus and features retention bonuses of $500,000 each year of the contract along with one-time bonuses for making the NCAA Tournament, reaching the second round, Sweet 16, Final Four and winning a national championship.

    It's a slight drop — Kentucky had been paying Calipari $8.5 million annually.

    At first glance, Arkansas’ seismic move makes the Razorbacks immediate Southeastern Conference contenders. Calipari’s Kentucky teams won six conference tournament championships and six regular season titles, though the Wildcats haven’t won the tournament title since 2017.

    Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas’ vice chancellor and athletic director, said Calipari’s reputation as an elite recruiter and his longtime success in the SEC were key draws.

    “I talked to eight to 10 different coaches about this job,” he said. "Here’s what I want to be clear about: In spite of the reports, there was only one person that was offered this job.”

    Calipari replaces Eric Musselman, who left for the job at Southern California. Calipari inherits a program that went 16-17 last season after three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including the Sweet 16 a year ago and the Elite Eight in 2021 and 2022.

    Arkansas, like Kentucky, has a rich history. The Razorbacks have been to six Final Fours, won the national title in 1994 and lost in the final in 1995.

    Excited Arkansas fans jammed the arena hoping to witness the start of a return to that level of greatness. John Tyson, chairman of Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, initially put Calipari and Yurachek in touch. Tyson got a standing ovation from the crowd when his presence was announced at the arena.

    Later, the house lights flickered, then faded, and a promo video that included Calipari’s remarks at a press conference from a previous game against Arkansas played.

    Shortly thereafter, Calipari was introduced. He pumped his fist on stage, hugged Yurachek and pointed to members of the crowd before pulling notes from his jacket and sitting down for an interview.

    Calipari announced that he was stepping down as Kentucky coach on Tuesday, saying in a video that the program “needs to hear another voice.”

    He left the Wildcats after going 410-123 in 15 years, including 23-10 this past season. But the past few campaigns have been disappointing by Kentucky standards with a 1-3 mark in its last three NCAA trips, including first-round losses to No. 14 seed Oakland last month and No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s two years ago. The Wildcats were top-three seeds both times.

    The most recent NCAA loss set off immediate calls to fire Calipari before athletic director Mitch Barnhart stated soon after that Calipari would return next season. Firing him would have triggered a buyout of more than $33 million to dismiss him under the terms of a 10-year, “lifetime” contract signed in 2019.

    Calipari had no hard feelings about Kentucky.

    “It was my dream job," Calipari said of Kentucky in the video. "Anybody in our profession looks at the University of Kentucky in basketball and said, ‘that is the bluest of blue.’ The last few weeks we’ve come to realize that this program probably needs to hear another voice that the university as a whole has to have another voice giving guidance about this program that they hear and the fans need to hear.”

    Calipari knew he was heading to Arkansas before Tuesday's video.

    “My thing to (Yurachek), probably at some point on Sunday was look, I feel really good. Just give me time," he said. "This is going to play. I think Monday night is when it was done. It was probably 11 o’clock at night or later. Tuesday morning, I did the video, and then my wife did a video, and we did this.”

    Before Calipari made his decision, he checked with Houston coach Kelvin Sampson about Yurachek, a former Houston athletic director.

    “I said, ‘Tell me about Hunter,’” Calipari said. "Well, he almost jumped through the phone. … He said when you need things done, he goes and does it.”

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