Kentucky, Memphis both want Calipari as coach

Published 2:17 am Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The University of Memphis gave Kentucky permission Monday to speak to John Calipari about the Wildcats’ head coaching position, then made a final push to try to keep the coach.

Some of Memphis’ key boosters met with Calipari on Monday. But one booster expects Calipari to go to Kentucky, though the person, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations, acknowledged the coach was torn between the two great opportunities.

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The Wildcats had a short meeting at their practice gym Monday afternoon. Asked afterward if they had a new coach, senior Jared Carter said, “I think so.” Asked if it was Calipari, Carter shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”

Several other Kentucky players, including stars Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, were escorted by university staffers and did not comment after leaving the Joe Craft Center.

Calipari met with Memphis players Monday morning.

“He told us he’s going to keep us posted,” Memphis freshman forward Wesley Witherspoon told WHBQ-TV in Memphis after Calipari met with the team Monday morning.

Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie on Friday, ready to move on after two frustrating seasons. They went right to work Monday, with two university staffers carrying large cardboard photos of Gillispie out of the practice center while media crews watched.

Kentucky spokesman DeWayne Peevy would not confirm or deny an ESPN report that Wildcats officials had already met with Calipari and were prepared to offer him the job. Citing unidentified sources, reported the offer was believed to be for eight years and around $35 million.

Calipari did not immediately return text messages from The Associated Press, and several Memphis players did not respond to e-mail messages left by the AP. And Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart did not respond to AP requests for comment.

In its coaching search, Kentucky quickly targeted Calipari, who just finished his ninth season at Memphis and has a 137-14 record over the past four season. He guided Memphis to a national runner-up finish last season, and the Tigers (33-4) were ousted in the West Regional semifinal on Thursday night.

Calipari currently has the top-rated recruiting class in the country, according to and However, his latest recruit 6-foot-10 DeMarcus Cousins committed verbally within the past month and could follow Calipari to Kentucky if the coach leaves.

On the Memphis campus, students seem resigned to losing Calipari and those recruits.

“It’s tough knowing he’s taking all those guys with him,” Memphis sophomore Josh Thomas said.

Landing Calipari won’t be cheap. He has four years left on his contract paying him $2.35 million annually. He also has an annuity averaging $1 million over the deal through 2013.

Throw in whatever settlement Kentucky negotiates with Gillispie, the Wildcats could have near $10 million invested in the head coach of its basketball program next year.

That doesn’t matter to one of college basketball’s most ardent fan bases, which seemed to electrified by the possibility of getting Calipari. A Facebook group called “Bring John Calipari to UK” had swelled to more than 11,000 members as of Monday evening while a popular Kentucky message board had over 18,000 people on it during the dinner hour.

Barnhart stressed the need for finding a coach who can embrace all the things that come with leading college basketball’s winningest program. Gillispie went just 40-27 in two seasons and seemed uncomfortable with the celebrity that came with the job.

Calipari, never one to shy away from a camera, would seem to have the charisma to match Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was named the Wildcats coach 20 years ago, winning a national championship in eight seasons at Kentucky.

Pitino and Calipari used to spar when the Cardinals battled the Tigers in Conference USA. Having two of the nation’s most high-profile coaches 70 miles apart could add another layer to one of the country’s most bitter rivalries.

The two met in the 1996 Final Four when Pitino was at Kentucky and Calipari was at Massachusetts. The Wildcats won 81-74 on their way to a sixth national championship.

Pitino left for the NBA a year later, and Kentucky has been in a small but steady decline ever since.

Gillispie was hired to bring some of the swagger back and instead the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament this year for the first time since 1991. He was let go last week after Barnhart said the match of coach and program wasn’t a “good fit.”

Barnhart knows he’ll need to find a leader who can thrive under the unique spotlight coaching the Wildcats provides. Calipari doesn’t lack for charm, though his past NCAA transgressions could be problematic for a program still sensitive of its image following the recruiting scandal left behind by Eddie Sutton in the late-1980s.

Massachusetts had to vacate its ’96 Final Four appearance after star Marcus Camby admitted to accepting gifts from a sports agent.

Calipari moved on to the NBA before landing at Memphis in 2000. The Tigers have not had any troubles during his tenure while developing into a national powerhouse.

Kentucky, however, is hardly the first program to flirt with Calipari, who often has received a bigger paycheck from Memphis as a result of the interest.

He signed a contract extension in April 2008 that pushed his deal through the 2012-13 season giving him a $500,000 a year raise with a $5 million bonus if he finishes the contract. That pushed his annual salary to $2.35 million.

He got that deal after taking Memphis to an NCAA Division I record 38 wins and the national championship game — the program’s first Final Four since 1985 and first NCAA final since 1973. The Tigers lost 75-68 in overtime to Kansas.

“What this contract has done is wiped out 99 percent of that stuff, and I told them that I appreciate that. It’s not only the base salary, but it’s also the longevity bonus which wipes out the others. There are no other places. This is the place,” Calipari said at a news conference when the contract was signed.