How did it happen? Kentucky’s Calipari is the new Arkansas coach

Nothing like a bombshell news drop on the eve of the national championship game.

John Calipari is leaving Kentucky and headed across the SEC to Arkansas, finalizing a five-year deal to replace Eric Musselman in Fayetteville.

Nobody could have foreseen this chain of events when SMU fired Rob Lanier after just two seasons, leading to the Mustangs poaching Andy Enfield from USC and Musselman departing Arkansas for the Trojans’ vacancy. Arkansas took a couple of early swings at Ole Miss’ Chris Beard and Kansas State’s Jerome Tang, but both coaches turned down the Razorbacks and returned to their respective schools.

So, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek reassessed the search and came out with a new name atop his target list: Calipari.

ESPN’s Jeff Borzello and Myron Medcalf react to the new move, including what it means for the league and the schools — and who could succeed Coach Cal in Lexington.

How did we get to this point? What compelled Calipari to leave Kentucky?

Myron Medcalf: After a series of disappointing outcomes (9-16 in 2020-21; the 2022 NCAA tournament loss to Saint Peter’s; last month’s first-round loss to Oakland), Calipari no longer had full control in Lexington. Rather than give Kentucky’s brass another year to decide if they wanted to keep him, Calipari did what some coaches do in this scenario: He left.

The joy of coaching at Kentucky is the admiration, popularity and influence one gains from a massive fan base and basketball brand. But Calipari has lost that support in recent years. It had felt like Calipari and Kentucky had been living under the same roof but were no longer together. Calipari just made it official Sunday night.

Jeff Borzello: Once a coach gets to the point where his athletic director needs to release a statement confirming his return as coach, it’s hard to regain the trust of the fan base. And Calipari reached that point. The NCAA tournament losses, one Big Dance win since 2019, refusing to embrace the transfer portal and continuing to build freshmen-focused rosters — it all added up to a frustrated fan base. And so when another school with huge resources and a passionate fan base showed interest, Calipari jumped. Better to leave than live on the hot seat.

What is most attractive about the Arkansas job?

Medcalf: Football is Arkansas’ first love, and it last won a basketball national title in 1995. It has an extremely passionate fan base, but nothing rivals Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation. Calipari won’t face the same pressures he endured in Lexington, but he will have access to power boosters (the Tyson Foods family, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the Walton family) who will supply enough NIL money to help him attract elite talent.

Borzello: Arkansas has plenty of resources and is increasing its NIL budget to bring Calipari into the fold. The fan base is there too. When Bud Walton Arena is rocking, it’s one of the best home-court advantages in the SEC. And Arkansas has a stranglehold on keeping in-state talent home for school; there was a stretch from 2016 to 2022 when zero ESPN 100 prospects left the state of Arkansas for college.

What are the chances Calipari will enjoy the type of success he had at Kentucky now that he’s at Arkansas?

Medcalf: In five seasons, Eric Musselman had a better postseason run (two Elite Eight appearances and a trip to the Sweet 16) than Calipari did at Kentucky over the same stretch. Calipari has always been a top recruiter; that won’t change at Arkansas. He might not get four or five McDonald’s All Americans every year the way he did at Kentucky, but Calipari will sign great talent — which he has done at every stop of his career.

Borzello: Calipari can win a national championship at Arkansas. Everything is in place to consistently compete at the top of the SEC and push for Final Four berths. Musselman didn’t quite have the regular-season success to match, but he had the Razorbacks within a game of the Final Four in back-to-back years. The key for Calipari is whether he will change his outlook on roster construction. He’ll be able to recruit at a high level in Fayetteville, but Calipari can’t continue to build with only one or two transfers. There has to be a mix of high schoolers and veterans, and he’ll have the NIL budget to build a roster in that way.

Is the move good or bad for Kentucky?

Medcalf: That’s a complicated question. Calipari had the flair (and hint of arrogance), personality and experience to handle the demands of a rabid fan base that craved the success he had brought in his first six seasons — including a national title. It’s a unique role, one only Rick Pitino and Calipari have excelled in over the past 30 years. There is no clear successor who can continue to attract five-star recruits and future NBA stars. The new coach also will have to endure the expectations of a fan base that hasn’t witnessed a national title run since 2012 but still expects to compete for a championship every season.

Borzello: It’s going to be hard to answer this right now. While Calipari’s buyout was the biggest impediment to firing the Hall of Fame coach, the lack of a natural replacement was second on the list. Most of the logical successors either have huge buyouts or won’t make the move. If Kentucky has to dip down into its second- or third-tier candidate pool, it might not be a great move for the Wildcats.

How will the move affect the SEC?

Medcalf: It depends in part on the dominoes. Will Kentucky target Nate Oats? Or will the Wildcats chase Jay Wright or Dan Hurley? Either way, Kentucky won’t settle for a subpar candidate. On the flip side, Arkansas, which hasn’t won the SEC since 2000, is certainly in a new tier with this hiring. Overall, a league that will soon add Oklahoma and Texas probably will improve.

Borzello: It’s landscape-shifting. As Myron mentioned, the dominoes falling will have an impact. But this isn’t just about Kentucky and what it does from here. This immediately vaults Arkansas into the upper crust of the national conversation — and therefore the SEC conversation. The Razorbacks suddenly have title-contending expectations every season. Kentucky will always have those, but the Wildcats might not be the biggest story in the league during the 2024-25 season.

What’s next for Kentucky? Who should Kentucky target for its opening?

Medcalf: Again, there are no simple answers here. But Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart should pull up to Monday’s national title game and ask Dan Hurley for the amount of money it would take to lure him to Lexington — even though Hurley is happy in Storrs, Connecticut. Nate Oats would make sense, but he has an $18 million buyout. Jay Wright doesn’t seem too interested in leaving TV to return to coaching. If those options all fall through, Kentucky won’t have an obvious target. That said, the Wildcats don’t owe Calipari his $33 million buyout because he left, so they have the financial backing to go shopping.

Borzello: There are huge obstacles to hire most of the names who would theoretically be the top targets. I don’t think Dan Hurley would go from UConn to Kentucky, especially if he wins another national title on Monday night. Does Billy Donovan really want to coach in college again? Does Jay Wright want to coach at all again? Nate Oats has a huge buyout. T.J. Otzelberger has a huge buyout. Tommy Lloyd just signed a new contract. Bruce Pearl has had similar NCAA tournament struggles in recent years. Scott Drew is probably the most realistic target, and he just turned down Louisville. Whether Kentucky can hire — or at least try to hire — Drew will likely be determined by the buyout in Drew’s new deal.

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