Sunday, June 16

How Arkansas hooked John Calipari and why he was ready to leave Kentucky

John Calipari sat in his hotel room in Phoenix on Friday when a close friend, John H. Tyson, reached out to discuss an important decision. People with knowledge of the conversation say Tyson, the billionaire chairman of Tyson Foods and a longtime major donor at the University of Arkansas, wanted to pick the Kentucky basketball coach’s brain on the direction of Arkansas’ coaching search after Eric Musselman left for the USC job. Tyson told the Hall of Fame coach that Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek was in Phoenix, too, and soon the two men met in Calipari’s room.

On the eve of the Final Four, Yurachek and Calipari spoke for nearly an hour about potential candidates to replace Musselman. Arkansas wanted to make a splashy hire and was prepared to spend big on salary, NIL and other support for its basketball program. As the two men departed the room, Yurachek came to a conclusion: maybe the perfect candidate was right in front of him.

“Why not you? Why wouldn’t you be interested?” Yurachek asked Calipari, according to Arkansas sources.

“Well, I haven’t spent much time on it, but we can talk some,” Calipari said.

Calipari left the meeting and conversations continued with Tyson.

“Last time, we didn’t get this done,” Tyson told Calipari, referring to when the Razorbacks pursued Calipari when he was at Memphis about 17 years ago. “Do you want this thing? Let’s get this done.”

Soon enough, Calipari’s attorney, Tom Mars (who went to law school at Arkansas), reached out to Calipari about the job. The full-court press was on. By Saturday morning, a formal term sheet declaring interest had been sent to Calipari. As negotiations were underway, Calipari grappled with the end of his 15-year run at Kentucky that included an NCAA championship and three more Final Four berths. Calipari is one of only a few coaches to lead a program to four Final Fours in a five-year span (2011-2015).

“He’s got one fault: He’s an extremely loyal person,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Kentucky’s not an on- and off-switch job. What the Kentucky coach and what Kentucky basketball means there … John filled those shoes in a way that I promise you this: One day, Kentucky is going to look back and say that we need a John Calipari banner up there.”

As the weekend concluded, Calipari and Arkansas neared an agreement on the terms for his arrival, which would represent a colossal shakeup in college basketball. Calipari owned the era of the one-and-done with a revolving door of NBA stars in Lexington, but now another program had piqued his interest at the right place and right time. Sources close to Calipari say he still regrets turning down the UCLA job in 2019. That was the time to bolt, he now admits privately. But Kentucky ponied up a 10-year, $86 million contract to keep him in Lexington, and the Bruins couldn’t match.

Now? Arkansas prepared a tremendous package, and Calipari was ready.

Industry sources briefed on the terms told The Athletic that Calipari signed a five-year, $38.5 million contract with Arkansas, with triggers based on NCAA Tournament appearances that could push the deal up to seven years and almost $60 million. The deal includes a $1 million signing bonus and other annual bonuses, those sources said. The new partnership will include an NIL fund worth “at least” $5-7 million, one industry source said, with Arkansas officials expressing no limit to the depths of their pocketbooks for Calipari’s NIL needs.


Tucker: John Calipari had Kentucky by the basketballs. Then came Arkansas

Sources on both sides said there was very limited contact between Calipari and Kentucky officials and no negotiations between the two sides. Once Arkansas engaged him, there was no looking back. Kentucky officials are believed to be working on practice facility and NIL plans, begging the questions as to where those intentions went with Calipari at the helm.

Suddenly, Arkansas is on the map in a major way again, combining a hungry Calipari, with all the star power and top-ranked recruiting classes he’ll bring, and a program eager to get back to a Final Four for the first time since 1995.

“I’ve done this a few times in my career and the biggest thing I’m trying to create is the love affair between this program and the campus,” Calipari told The Athletic. “This program, Northwest Arkansas, this whole state, you’re trying to create a love affair. That means the kind of kids we’re recruiting, great kids that want to be involved in the community. That means as the coach, don’t cheat the position and stay inside and just watch tape. Be involved in charities, be involved in helping throughout the campus, the state.

“The other thing to change is figuring out our roster, and you have to go in now and have NIL ready, which the school will do. I don’t have to go out and do it anymore. I had to at Kentucky. Here, we’re putting a team together now. Since I’ve had to coach a new team every year, that doesn’t bother me, but they have got to be good kids. If they’re only about themselves, we won’t recruit them, they won’t be here.

“What keeps me going is chasing championships and putting my team in the best position at the end of the year to make a run. Let’s go do this and do it together.”

The question everyone has asked over the last 72 hours: Why? Why did Calipari leave Kentucky after 15 season? Why leave for Arkansas? The terms of his contract provide some answers, but it goes much deeper than that.

Multiple sources who have witnessed the situation say the relationship between Calipari and athletic director Mitch Barnhart had steadily deteriorated — and that a recent appearance on local television together, saying they got along fine and were committed to moving forward together was, essentially, a dog and pony show. That relationship was broken beyond repair in August 2022, while Calipari was with his team on an exhibition tour in the Bahamas. He’d been pressing Barnhart about the need for a new practice facility and even rounded up millions of dollars in pledges from his former players in the NBA to help fund it. But Barnhart would not budge, insisting that a then-15-year-old Joe Craft Center needed only to be refreshed, not replaced.

So one afternoon during that trip, Calipari called a handful of reporters to his hotel suite and let loose. After a lot of spending on other sports at Kentucky, he said, it was basketball’s turn. And then came the words that went off like a stick of dynamite within the athletic department: “This is a basketball school.”

Football coach Mark Stoops was upset, publicly and privately, and Barnhart sided with his football coach – at least as Calipari saw it and still sees it. While Calipari was still in the Bahamas, being told not to issue any further public statements on the matter, not even a carefully crafted apology, Stoops and Barnhart held a joint press conference in Lexington and Calipari’s boss didn’t hold back.

“We’ll make sure we’re not entitled,” Barnhart said at one point. Basketball would always have support, he said, adding pointedly: “If that’s not good enough, you know, coaches change a lot in today’s world.”

That’s when Calipari knew the marriage – an analogy Barnhart uses often – was doomed.

There was a fundamental disagreement on what constituted sufficient support for the program. Between butting heads over facilities and feeling handcuffed in the NIL space, where the coach felt like he was on his own to round up funds, Calipari began to wonder if Kentucky really was “future-proofed.”

“I know for a fact Coach Cal didn’t feel supported, I don’t feel like he had the school’s backing,” former Wildcats star DeMarcus Cousins told The Athletic. “There’s a lot of things going on behind the scenes, adjusting to the modern times of college basketball now. It’s more so at the top, I just don’t feel like the support was there. This situation could have been handled a lot more gracefully, especially for as much as he’s done for them. Given the guys that have come through there, I would say these were the golden years of Kentucky basketball in the modern era.”

“Cal was the perfect coach for any job, especially Kentucky,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told The Athletic. “You have to have skin thicker than a whale. It’s sad to me what’s happened; at all organizations it starts from the top down. Cal gets taken for granted. We talk about a bad year. A bad year for him is the year of most people’s lives.

“I don’t care if it’s at Michigan State, Kentucky or Duke. It’s just harder to do your job when you’re not aligned. There was a disconnect. There’s always two sides to every divorce. This new opportunity is going to rejuvenate Cal.”

Cousins and John Wall had ushered in the Calipari era in 2009, and many current NBA superstars followed, such as Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Julius Randle, Bam Adebayo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. As Calipari believes, from his first Big Blue Madness 15 years ago to today, much has changed. For instance, sources involved with the program say Calipari and some of his star alumni were privately miffed about a steep decline in resources made available for Big Blue Madness, right down to a literal shrinking stage.

The obvious pushback from Kentucky’s perspective: There were now diminishing returns from the coach, who hadn’t reached a Final Four since 2015 and had not made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2019. Calipari and Barnhart found themselves in something of a cold war, with the coaching staff believing they needed more support to win big and Barnhart expecting to see a bigger return on his original (and massive) investment before he’d pay any more into the program under Calipari’s watch.

Toward the end, an increasing number of fans came to think like Barnhart. Many believed he should spend big not on a practice facility but to pay Calipari’s $33 million buyout after a first-round NCAA Tournament exit last month. Barnhart declined to throw that much money away, so their strife was set to continue for at least another year. An incredibly awkward next season was set to play out in Lexington.

But then an old friend called and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Come to Arkansas and feel loved again, feel supported again, feel like anything is possible again.


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“The negotiations were 15 minutes of me looking at it and saying, it needs to be like this, okay with this,” Calipari said. “It was just: Do we want this? That’s how it went. It happened in a total of three days.”

And so there was Calipari on Tuesday, recording a heartfelt goodbye video from his home, where someone had planted yard signs that spelled out THANK YOU CAL. Days earlier, someone else had planted a sign with Calipari and Barnhart’s faces and the message: One needs to go!

“The last few weeks, we’ve come to realize,” Calipari said on his video, “that this program probably needs to hear another voice.”

More than that, Calipari realized he needed another program eager to hear his.

“John brings exactly what he’s brought everywhere: a winner, a contender,” Barnes said. “He puts them in the fight and he’s going to build. He does it as quickly as anybody that’s ever coached the game.”

(Photo illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty)