John Calipari’s surprise move to Arkansas shows how desperately he wanted out of Kentucky

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Eleven days ago, John Calipari and Mitch Barnhart were sitting together in the Kentucky basketball office doing a painfully awkward TV interview.

Barnhart had publicly confirmed the previous day that Calipari would return to lead the school’s storied men’s basketball program for a 16th season. Now it’s time for the embattled coach and his longtime athletic director to put aside any tension and come together to discuss the future of Kentucky basketball.

Asserting that the notion that he and Calipari had no relationship was “garbage” and “misinformation”, Barnhart compared their partnership to a “quasi-married” couple. When Calipari interrupted and asked if Barnhart ever had a fight with his wife, Barnhart responded, “Sometimes. I think you and I have too.”

Given the shocking news that came Sunday night on the eve of the men’s national title game, this entire uncomfortable conversation makes for a hilarious watch. The “quasi-marriage” between Calipari and Kentucky has ended. According to multiple reports, Calipari is finalizing a five-year deal to become the next head coach at Arkansas.

For Calipari to leave the highest-profile job in college basketball to take over a second-tier program in the same conference, he had to Disappointed To move on from Kentucky. He had to know that he would never be able to recapture the magic of the first half of his Kentucky tenure, when the Wildcats were competing for Final Fours and national titles and that he probably could have run for governor of the state and won overwhelmingly. Could achieve.

The pressure was mounting on Calipari at Kentucky as his last four seasons doubled as one of the worst stretches in program history.

In 2021, Kentucky endured its most disappointing season in decades, falling from the preseason top 10 to a 9–16 face plant. In 2022, the Wildcats suffered their worst loss ever in the NCAA Tournament, a 2 vs. 15 upset at the hands of Saint Peter’s. Last year, Calipari’s team earned a No. 6 seed but failed to make it past the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 16: Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari addresses the media during a practice session before the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum on March 16, 2023 in Greensboro, North Carolina.  (Photo by Michelle Layton/Getty Images)

John Calipari’s 15-year run at Kentucky is coming to a surprise end as he is reportedly taking the head coaching job at Arkansas, a fellow SEC program. (Photo by Michelle Layton/Getty Images)

Those disappointments paved the way for a crucial 2023-24 season that ended with another first-round disaster in March. A graduate transfer from Division II Hillsdale College came off the bench for 14th-seeded Oakland and sank 10 threes, leading Kentucky’s list of former McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA draft picks.

The loss renewed calls in the media for Calipari to be fired and destroyed much of the support the once-beloved coach had among Kentucky fans. It forced Barnhart to ponder a once-unfathomable question: How much money would he be comfortable paying Calipari out? Was it worth paying Calipari’s $33 million buyout to cut ties and move on?

Only Barnhart knows how strongly he considered taking such a bold step. Calipari spoke publicly as someone who was expecting to return to Kentucky, and Barnhart’s first public comments seemed to confirm Calipari’s return.

It seemed like Kentucky was stuck with a coach who was no longer the right person for the position. Calipari was slow to embrace basketball’s 3-point revolution, slow to recognize that college basketball was trending older and more transfer-heavy, slow to adjust to making it harder to build an one-and-done national title contender. It was happening.

There were reports that Calipari’s relationship with Barnhart was strained. It’s the same with the dynamic between Calipari and the local media.

Then, out of nowhere, an impossible series of events unfold that result in a fresh start for all parties.

SMU unexpectedly fired coach Rob Lanier after a 20-win season and an appearance in the NIT. Andy Enfield left USC and took the SMU job after a disappointing 2023-24 season. USC then hired Eric Musselman away from Arkansas, paving the way for the Razorbacks to hire Calipari.

The driving force behind Arkansas’ push for Calipari was reportedly billionaire John Tyson, a longtime Arkansas donor. Calipari has First posted on social media About his long-term friendship with Tyson.

In many ways, this surprising outcome is a win-win for almost everyone involved.

Kentucky gets a chance to move on from Calipari without paying any of his $33 million buyout. Calipari gets a clean slate at a top-20 program with championship pedigree and plenty of zero money. And Arkansas gets a Hall of Fame coach who should have a lot to prove — and perhaps some incoming talented freshmen who originally committed to Calipari at Kentucky.

The one person left with egg on his face is Barnhart. He’s gone from publicly supporting Calipari less than two weeks ago to struggling to find a replacement.

UConn’s Dan Hurley and Chicago Bulls’ Billy Donovan are pie-in-the-sky options. You tell Hurley he’s not leaving UConn and Donovan says he’s not going back to college basketball, before you move on to the other candidates.

After that, there is no shortage of realistic options, even guys like Alabama’s Nate Oats and Baylor’s Scott Drew, both of whom have had their contracts voided again.

The Kentucky job is the most pressing job in college basketball, but also the most rewarding. Five different coaches, including Calipari, have won national championships there. The Wildcats competed with Kansas for the title of winningest program all-time. Expectations are high, but there are no limits to what the right coach can achieve.

John Calipari was no longer the right coach for Kentucky.

Now they are impossibly free from each other.

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