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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Sources: Arkansas in talks with Calipari to be next Razorbacks coach | The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

FAYETTEVILLE — The search for a new University of Arkansas men’s basketball coach took a surprise turn on Sunday when Kentucky Coach John Calipari’s name surfaced as a candidate.

Arkansas officials have been in discussions with Calipari about the Razorbacks’ opening, sources told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

One source cautioned a deal that could bring Calipari to Arkansas was far from done.

Arkansas is searching for a new coach to replace Eric Musselman, who resigned on Thursday to become Southern Cal’s coach.

Calipari, 65, has been Kentucky’s coach for the last 15 seasons and led the Wildcats to a 410-122 record, highlighted by the 2012 national championship and three other Final Four appearances in 2011, 2014 and 2015 with 12 NCAA Tournament appearances overall.

A few years ago the thought of Calipari leaving Kentucky for another coaching job would have sounded far-fetched, but the Wildcats are 1-3 in their previous three NCAA Tournament appearances and suffered shocking first-round losses to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s 85-79 in overtime in 2022 and to No. 14 seed Oakland 80-76 this season.

Despite Kentucky’s struggles in recent seasons — including a 9-16 record in 2020-21 — and growing discontent among the Wildcats’ fan base especially after the Oakland loss, firing Calipari hasn’t been a realistic option because he has a buyout of more than $34 million.

But if Calipari were to leave Kentucky for another coaching job, he owes no buyout according to terms of a 10-year contract extension he signed in 2019.

Calipari is the second-highest paid college coach in the country, according to USA Today’s database, with an annual salary of $8.5 million.

The only coach with a higher salary is Kansas’ Bill Self at $9.6 million according to USA Today.

Calipari’s salary is more than double the $4.2 million Arkansas paid Musselman.

On March 26, five days after the Wildcats’ loss to Oakland, Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart announced Calipari would return as coach.

“As we normally do at the end of every season, Coach Calipari and I have had conversations about the direction of our men’s basketball program and I can confirm that he will return for his 16th season as our head coach,” Barnhart said.

Kentucky has signed another highly-touted recruiting class led by 5-star center Jayden Quaintance, 4-star guards Boogie Fland, Travis Perry and Billy Richmond, 4-star center Somto Cyril and 4-star forward Karter Knox.

Barnhart and Calipari denied reports of having a poor working relationship when they made a joint appearance WLEX-TV and the “BBN Tonight” show.

“I’m not a guy who gets in coaches’ business, any of my coaches, and they’ll all tell you that,” Barnhart said on the show. “We let them do their work and try and stay out of their way. Do I wish I could be around more? I probably will work at that. That’s on me.

“At the end of the day, I trust [Calipari] to do his job and we always want to make adjustments to get better. So let’s put the notion of no relationship out the door.”

Calipari said there are “so many things out there that aren’t accurate, correct. You can’t defend all this stuff.

“You just have to let it go. Hopefully people logically look at it and say, look, they’ve done a lot of good together.”

Calipari and Barnhart met privately after the season ended.

“That’s part of athletics and dealing with that, trying to get better, trying to figure out how do we do this together,” Calipari said. “What do we need to do? I think one of the things that I’ve said about the meeting was Mitch saying, ‘How can I help you? What can we do to help you get where you’re trying to get this thing?’ And we talked about three or four things, but that’s when you’re coaching.”

Calipari, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, has an 813-260 record in 32 seasons as a college head coach.

Before going to Kentucky, Calipari had a 189-90 record in eight seasons at Massachusetts from 1988-98 through 1995-96.

After leading UMass to the 1996 Final Four — including a victory over Arkansas in a Sweet 16 matchup — Calipari went to the NBA as coach of the New Jersey Nets.

Fired early in his third season with the Nets and with a 72-112 record overall, Calipari came back to the college game and led Memphis to a 214-68 record in nine seasons from 2000-01 through 2008-09 with a Final Four appearance in 2008 when the Tigers lost to Kansas in the championship game.

Mississippi State Coach Chris Jans and University of Arkansas-Little Rock Darrell Walker — an All-American guard for the Razorbacks in 1983 — interviewed with Arkansas officials on Sunday, sources told the Democrat-Gazette.

Jans, 54, has led Mississippi State to a 42-27 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances in his two seasons coaching the Bulldogs.

Walker, 63, was the Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year this season after leading the UALR to a 21-13 record and share of the OVC regular-season title.

After playing 10 seasons in the NBA, Walker was an NBA head coach with Toronto and Washington. He also led UALR to a Sun Belt regular-season championship in 2020.

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