Kentucky’s basketball opening offers top pay and perks. Candidates must also have tough skin

Published 4:07 pm Wednesday, April 10, 2024

By Gary B. Graves, The Associated Press

LEXINGTON — Life can be sweet for a Kentucky basketball coach who wins – especially in April – with a seven-figure salary and endorsements among the tangible rewards. The intangibles include selfie requests from blue-clad Wildcats fans and the occasional sightseers who drive slowly past their house as if a celebrity lives there because, well, it’s Kentucky.

The downside is sometimes-harsh criticism from fans on social media and sports talk shows after losses, with recruiting strategy, rotations, substitutions and, of course, X’s and O’s under some of the most intense scrutiny in the game. It can border on personal if a pattern develops, which generally happens with any coach, but perhaps more so given the storied status of the Wildcats ‘ program.

Eight national championships and nearly 2,400 victories leave no room for error and nowhere to hide at a destination job.

“The pressure you feel there as a coach is relentless, but that’s what makes it the best job and the worst job all on the same day,” said ESPN basketball analyst and former coach Jimmy Dykes, recalling an observation by then-Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton in the late 1980s when he was there as an assistant.

“John Calipari has been a master at it for 15 years, and that job requires someone that doesn’t just sit in their office and watch film. There’s a lot there’s a lot going on with that job.”

Calipari gave it all up on Tuesday and was hired the next day as Arkansas’ coach, swapping Lexington for Fayetteville and a pay cut, at least in terms of annual salary.

His successor must not only have a similarly sparkling resume, but it wouldn’t hurt to also have an outsized personality to handle being the face of the program and its rabid Big Blue Nation fanbase. That candidate must also have a thick skin to handle the pressure that comes with maintaining the so-called “gold standard” symbolized by eight title banners hanging from the Rupp Arena rafters.

Adolph Rupp won the first of four titles in 1948, followed by Joe B. Hall (1978), Rick Pitino (1996), Tubby Smith (1998) and Calipari (2012). The next coach is expected to end a 14-year title drought sooner rather than later.

That puts a premium on hiring another high-profile, highly motivated type like Calipari, who in his farewell video mentioned the perception of Kentucky as “the bluest of blue(bloods).” Besides recognizing that tradition, the choice must also have a firm grasp of a recruiting landscape made tougher by the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsement opportunities for athletes.

If the next coach masters all that and returns Kentucky to the mountaintop, there’ll be no ceiling for his popularity.

“When Kentucky is at or near the top and is as relevant as any program in the country, the status of their coach goes hand in hand,” said Dick Gabriel, a longtime Kentucky broadcaster. “That coach IS the program because of the way we in the media treat coaches now and the way fans look at coaches.

“In the eyes of fans, coaches are omnipotent. You know that if you’re winning, buddy, you can do no wrong. And fans will make all kinds of excuses for you. And if you’re not, you’re out there on the island.”

Dykes added, “You’ve got to be out in the community, be aware of charity events. You got to be aware of the needs in that state. You gotta be out putting your program in front of the Bluegrass roots and people that live in all four corners of that state.”

Which explains the narrow list of possible coaching candidates such as Dan Hurley, just a couple of days removed from leading UConn to its second consecutive NCAA championship and sixth overall since 1999. Or Baylor’s Scott Drew, who led the Bears to their first national in the 2020-21 season.

Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, a former Kentucky assistant under Rick Pitino, has been mentioned as well but said Tuesday night that he hadn’t been contacted and reiterated his commitment to the NBA. At the same time, the former Florida coach was flattered to be mentioned and knows from experience why Kentucky is shooting high for its next coach.

After all, he lived on that lofty perch for a while.

“I understand the magnitude of that place and the history and the tradition and everything that goes into that place,” said Donovan, who coached the Gators to consecutive NCAA titles in 2006 and ’07. “It is flattering to be mentioned with a school and a tradition like that in this game. … I’ve got an enormous amount of respect for Kentucky, their program and what it stands for.”