Pushing Back on A Reason Why Calipari Won’t Get Booed by Kentucky Fans

John Calipari, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Kentucky, Kentucky basketball

No doubt, Arkansas shocked the world when it hired John Calipari to replace Eric Musselman.  And at this point, I’m a little ashamed to say I wasn’t completely on board at first.

As Hog fans, we’ve all been conditioned to hate Cal for the past 30 years, starting when he was at UMass in the ‘90s. Plus, given his recent early exits from the NCAA Tournament, I frankly thought he’d lost his fire.  

The early overwhelming excitement about him was all about how much talent he would be able to recruit, which would ensure Hog success as long as he’s here. I thought he always had the best talent in the country at Kentucky, but was still getting bounced early from March Madness. Why should anyone expect anything different in Fayetteville?  

What really drove me to that snap judgment, however, was the fact that it didn’t seem like Big Blue Nation was necessarily being flooded by tears on the news of his departure.    

Then the press conference happened. After that, I dove in headfirst and came to the school of thought that what Calipari needed was a change and that’s what he got. If anyone has ever truly won a press conference, he did in an introduction that included an incredible command of Arkansas basketball history. He’s likable and – believe me, I never thought I would say this – he’s humble. 

Either that, or the 65-year-old deserves an Oscar.

Predicting John Calipari’s Reception in Kentucky

So, now we’re at the point in the process where we can speculate on silly side-bar issues like the expected reception for John Calipari in Lexington when the Hogs go over there to play the Wildcats in the only UK-UA game of next season.

College basketball analyst Aaron Torres, for one, thinks he’ll be received warmly. I agree. I don’t expect a lot of booing coming from the stands in Rupp Arena. However, Torres and I arrive at that conclusion for different reasons.  

Kentucky basketball fans will go gentle on him, Torres says. In fact, he believes they should be thanking him for saving Kentucky a ton of money because it didn’t require the $33 million price tag for firing him.

I think he’ll be received because the people whose money was saved are not the types who paint their faces and wear overalls to games looking for their 12 seconds of fame on ESPN GameDay. They’re people who sit in sky boxes. All the other fans, the ones who try to stir the pot on social media, usually have little to no financial skin in the game.

Imagine if Calipari decides after a year to head off to UCLA, Duke or North Carolina. Would I be mad? No. I’d be frustrated with the Arkansas basketball program, as most loyal Hog fans have been since dirt was invented and it would only represent another chapter in the book.

I can’t speak for John Tyson, Warren Stephens or any of the other big donors who were responsible for getting Calipari here, but they would have every right to be mad as hell. Don’t get me wrong. This won’t happen, but if it did, they would be justified if they wanted to inflict bodily harm on him.

No, the average Wildcat fan watched and suffered through the Calipari regime growing somewhat stale, and I don’t say that as a knock on him, but just a reality of human nature. They will, however, also remember the good times. I mean, the vast majority of us still love Nolan, but it doesn’t take an elephant’s memory to remember that not all was right during the last few years of his regime.  

Regardless of what happens with Calipari returns to Rupp Arena, rest assured that his reception will be a lot friendlier than what Rick Pitino sustained after leaving for a hated in-state rival:

I know it’s not a perfect analogy, because Nolan didn’t just wake up one morning and decide it was time to skedaddle. Both Calipari and Musselman voluntarily left their respective programs.

Imagine a Musselman Return to Arkansas

Speaking of Eric Musselman, it seems unlikely to me that even if he brought his USC basketball team to Bud Walton to play the Hogs, I doubt he’d be booed out of Bud Walton. In fact, I’d go so far as to say if any booing happened fans sitting around the classless blowhards would quickly tell the boo birds to sit down and shut up.  

My hunch is that Hog fans appreciate what Musselman did on the Hill, which ultimately put Arkansas basketball back on the map and that’s no reason to hate him, said Captain Obvious.

Considering Calipari’s undeniable success at Kentucky, the past five years notwithstanding, by the time he returns to Lexington, the wounds suffered by Kentucky fans will have been licked enough to be nice to him.

Make no mistake, they’ll want to beat him, but that will be more about thumbing their collective nose at Razorback Nation. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if in the not-too-distant future, a win for either team would help determine the SEC regular-season champion and NCAA Tournament seeding, not to mention the inevitable impact on recruiting.

What will really get to them is that with Calipari as head coach, the Hogs will get the benefit of the doubt in all things that happen between the baskets and everywhere else.  

In fact, it’s already happened with the Hogs landing at No. 19 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings, just ahead of the Wildcats who were – ummm, how do I say this – not on the list.  

And recognition in silly polls that are published months before the season starts is what the average Kentucky basketball fan – pampered for decades – has come to expect, just like trips to Omaha have become a reasonable expectation for Arkansas fans at the beginning of every baseball season.

(I don’t think Hog fans would boo Dave Van Horn if he decided to leave for another program, which seems as impossible as it must have felt for the Big Blue Nation faithful.)

Sure, Calipari will probably take a light flogging on social media, but it’ll be from the few – not the many and not by those who have truly paid for the right to be angry. They’ll react to him like we would, given the same circumstances.

The fact is, Kentuckians and Arkansans are not that different. Most understand not only how and when to cheer for actions on and off the court, but also how the world of college basketball works.

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I think Arkansas will get the best of Kentucky in the immediate few seasons to come, but that’s a whole other story.

At the end of the day, Calipari should fear the wrath of Arkansas fans more than Kentucky’s, but that’ll only be seen if he doesn’t live up to his well-earned reputation as a winner.  

Ultimately, this is a moot point because John Calipari will win at Arkansas, like he has everywhere else.

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