John Calipari departs Kentucky after 15 years, saying the program ‘needs to hear another voice’

Published 3:22 pm Tuesday, April 9, 2024

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari is stepping down as Kentucky’s men’s basketball coach after 15 years, saying Tuesday that the “program probably needs to hear another voice” amid reports that he’s closing in on a deal with Arkansas to take over that Southeastern Conference program.

Calipari posted a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, in which he said that after talking with his wife, Ellen, he decided a change was needed. He added, “We’ve loved it here, but we think it’s time for us to step away and step away completely from the program.”

Calipari leaves a Wildcats program he guided to the 2012 NCAA championship among four Final Four appearances. He went 410-123 in 15 seasons. The past few seasons have been disappointing by Kentucky standards, with a 1-3 mark in its last three NCAA Tournament trips, including first-round losses to No. 14 seed Oakland last month and No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s two years ago, despite being a top-three seed both times.

The most recent loss set off immediate calls to fire Calipari before athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Calipari would return next season. Firing Calipari would’ve triggered a buyout of more than $33 million under the terms of a 10-year, so-called lifetime contract signed in 2019.

Barnhart said Kentucky would work diligently to hire “a proven, highly dedicated coach who embraces the importance of this program to our fans and the state of Kentucky.”

The AD added: “We’re appreciative of John Calipari leading our program for the last 15 years, adding to the legacy of championship success at Kentucky. We’re grateful to John for his many contributions to the University, and our state, both on and off the court.”

The list of possible candidates includes Baylor’s Scott Drew, who guided the Bears to a national title in the 2020-21 COVID-19 season. UConn’s Dan Hurley, who guided the Huskies to their second consecutive NCAA championship, also been mentioned along with Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, whose Florida squads were the NCAA’s last back-to-back champs before UConn.

Calipari didn’t specifically mention the Arkansas opening he has been linked to since multiple reports surfaced Sunday night about negotiations with the school. The Hall of Famer simply said, “There have been opportunities that have been presented to us, so we’re discussing them as a family.”

However, Calipari’s announcement certainly clears the way for him to go the SEC rival with which he got very familiar while coaching the Wildcats. The 65-year-old would replace Eric Musselman, who left over the weekend after four seasons to become coach at Southern California.

There was no immediate word on whether Arkansas was close to hiring Calipari. A school spokesman told The Associated Press that the Board of Trustees was not scheduled to meet on Tuesday.

Calipari established a legacy in Lexington upon arriving in 2009 with an impressive parade of stellar freshmen who came to be known as “one and done” for playing one season before entering the NBA draft.

Kentucky thrived with Calipari’s approach in the first half of his tenure as the Wildcats regained their blueblood status and he developed the newcomers into NBA draft picks. The first-round total is 35 alone among 47 overall selections, with No. 1 overall choices in John Wall (2010), Anthony Davis (2012) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015). Opening-day NBA rosters featured 26 Kentucky players, including two-way and inactive.

Pro teams’ interest in Kentucky players spawned preseason combines – sometimes televised – featuring scouts from all 32 NBA clubs. While the youth movement helped Kentucky win games and fill 20,500-seat Rupp Arena fans and media believe he became too focused on sending players to the next level instead of winning championships.

Meanwhile, the youngsters’ inexperience began to show in losses to more seasoned opponents, some stocked with veterans through the vastly expanded transfer portal. Calipari himself used the portal to fill roster voids — including 2022 consensus national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe — and continued winning to an extent. Though not enough to please a demanding fan base that expects nothing less than a deep tournament run toward a ninth national championship.

The advent of name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsement opportunities for college athletes has added another challenge, which Calipari addressed with last month’s launch of the La Familia fundraising collective focused solely on basketball. It has raised just over $50,000 with a goal of $1 million.

Sitting on a couch in his Lexington home, Calipari thanked players and their families in his video for the privilege of coaching them. He also thanked staff, supporters and others for everything achieved and for “lifelong” friendships built during his tenure.

“Hopefully, it was an experience with your kids that you can look at and say, ‘Man, this is something that we’ll remember the rest of our lives together,’” Calipari said. “Those memories and what we were able to do together is what this is all about.

“Again, it’s been a dream, what we’ve been able to do for 15 years. Time for another voice. And you know I’m always going to be a fan. Thank you.”