What Makes John Calipari Such an Earth-Shattering Hire Isn’t Going to Cut It at Arkansas

John Calipari, Kentucky basketball, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

About 30 years after winning the national championship game, Arkansas basketball will essentially return to the big stage on Monday.

This time around, it won’t be on the court, but expect the Razorbacks to take up nearly as much of the national spotlight as UConn and Purdue throughout much of the day. The breaking news on Sunday night that John Calipari will be announced as the Arkansas basketball coach all but ensures it.

According to Jeff Goodman, a deal is done and Calipari’s contract at the UA is expected to be in the range of $7.5 million to $8 million per year. ESPN reports that the 5-year deal is close to being finalized. This is a seismic move for Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who has reportedly gotten assistance from beaucoup Tyson money to make this happen. The Razorbacks have never gotten a new coach with anything at the level of the kind of resume Calipari would bring to town:

  • 6 Final Four appearances w/ 3 different schools (UMass, Memphis, Kentucky)
  • 17 regular season conference championships (6 SEC)
  • 3x National Coach of the Year
  • 4x SEC Coach of the Year
  • 2012 NCAA National Champion
  • 813-260 All-Time Record

John Calipari Coming to Hogs Barely Computes

The fact this is happening just a couple days after Chris Beard, Will Wade and Jerome Tang were being discussed as the next Hogs coach is, as Clay Travis put it, “batshit crazy even for the SEC.”

“I think both Arkansas and Kentucky have to be happy,” Travis continued. “He’ll get elite talent in Arkansas and Kentucky fans were done with him.”

There’s no question that John Calipari will inject immediate talent into the Arkansas basketball program. While former Hogs coach Eric Musselman self-promoted like nobody’s business, his influence in the bigger world of college basketball pales in comparison to Calipari’s. That comes across by simple math. With 1.5 million followers on Twitter, Calipari has more than nine times the number of followers than Musselman does.

For a clearer perspective of just how big of a deal this is, you could add up the “X” followers of the three biggest sports at the University of Arkansas – football (434,600), basketball (271,700) and baseball (247,000) – and still not eclipse 1 million followers.

The possibility of Drake switching out visits to Rupp Arena for Bud Walton Arena while getting NBA superstars like Anthony Davis and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to vouch for Calipari to recruits is going to be worth its weight in gold to the Arkansas basketball program.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see a five-star prospect or two from the current Kentucky basketball recruiting class decide to call the Hogs instead:

Getting elite talent out of high school isn’t going to be a problem for Calipari. He’s able to go into other states and get even legacy recruits like few others, as fans of Arkansas native Malik Monk can attest.

The issue is whether he’ll be able to fully embrace the transfer portal and learn to depend on older talent alongside those freshman studs.

In the last few years, the game has evolved in a direction that has hurt Calipari’s product on the floor. No Kentucky basketball fan needs to be reminded of the team’s multiple first-round exits in recent postseasons on the heels of repeated failures to win the SEC.

Where Calipari Must Change for Arkansas Basketball

In short, the “one-and-done” magic that propelled John Calipari and his teams to such heights from 2010-15, and still makes him such an earth-shattering hire, has worn off as elite teams have become older and more experienced in the NIL transfer portal era.

The 65-year-old’s inability to fully shift from his older way of operating to the new world order is a big reason Kentucky has not been to the Final Four since 2015, an eternity by that program’s standards. It’s also why Arkansas under Musselman largely eclipsed Kentucky with the exception of this past season.

While Arkansas fans are over the moon with the prospect of the kind of freshman talent Calipari can bring to the Hill, he needs to grow beyond his comfort zone in order to succeed beyond the honeymoon phase in Fayetteville. Going forward, he will need to change the way he builds his rosters, depending on older guys and blending them with the young guns he’s always been so good at getting.

In this first season, John Calipari has no choice but to depend on the transfer portal given he’s essentially being given carte blanche with this Arkansas basketball roster. Trevon Brazile is the only returning player who hasn’t yet entered the transfer portal.

Fortunately for Calipari, he has a couple of things working in his favor. First of all, he should be extremely motivated to redeem his reputation as an all-timer given the Kentucky fanbase was so happy to get rid of him without having to pay a dime (had he been fired, Calipari would have been owed $33 million). Also consider he’ll be joined by others on a new Arkansas basketball staff looking to complete their own redemption arcs.

Take his son, Brad Calipari, who lost his job as director of on-court development at Vanderbilt after Jerry Stackhouse was fired. On Sunday night, Trey Biddy reported that Brad Calipari would join his father at Arkansas once the deal was finalized. It would also make sense for someone like Kenny Payne, Calipari’s long-time assistant, to be brought into the loop. (Payne was recently fired after two seasons at head coach of Louisville).

On top of all this motivation, there will also be plenty of NIL cash to lure elite recruits from the transfer portal:

With that kind of cash on hand, don’t expect misses like the one Musselman had with Grant Nelson going forward. One of the first transfer players Calipari may want to recruit is someone like Khalif Battle, who is still showing interest in the program’s developments despite entering the portal a few days ago.

Arkansas Basketball Transfer Possibilities

Size is always at a premium, so don’t be surprised if John Calipari goes after someone like Brandon Garrison, the 6-foot-11, 245-pound center from Oklahoma State who averaged 7.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks this season. Or 7-foot-1 Maxime Raynaud, who averaged 15.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists as a junior at Stanford.

As far as a backcourt centerpiece, why not shoot for the current top-rated transfer? Florida Atlantic’s Johnell Davis led this team to the Final Four last year and this season averaged 18.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He also shot 48.3% from the field and 41.4% from 3-point range.

Coaches who have already won a national title and leave for supposed greener pastures are rare, but these attempts can sometimes go spectacularly well. It definitely worked out for Roy Williams when he left Kansas for North Carolina, and in football with Nick Saban when he landed at Alabama a few years after leaving LSU.

But this could also go the way of Jimbo Fisher, who won a title at Florida State, but then wore out his welcome there in the following years. Fisher left for a program that needed somebody to help it over the mountaintop. Like Arkansas, Texas A&M has the money to get a coach of this caliber, with the main difference that Arkansas has actually won a national title in recent decades while Texas A&M football has not.

In the case of Fisher, Texas A&M never even made college football’s version of the Final Four under the coach Aggies fans were once so excited to get.

John Calipari is on the brink of receiving a similar welcome in Fayetteville. The end result could go a few ways. In order for it to end up with Arkansas returning to an actual court on national championship Monday will come down to Calipari’s willingness to not only learn new tricks, but embrace them.


At 10:00 below, Andy Staples discusses the danger of the Arkansas hire giving Calipari an “excuse not to change a thing”:

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