What Will Never Change Despite Arkansas Basketball’s Biggest Modern Villain Crossing Sides

John Calipari

It’s been more than a week since word leaked that John Calipari is the new coach of the Arkansas basketball team, and emotions are still swirling. Exciting and anxious for this new era, to be sure, but also surreal, shocking, and even unnatural.

Not unnatural in a bad way, more of just an unexpected phenomenon. It’s not unusual for Arkansas to occasionally make splashy hires. Bret Bielema was the reigning Big Ten champion when he came to Fayetteville. Jordyn Weiber is one of the biggest names in American gymnastics. Bobby Petrino was an NFL head coach when he originally got on the plane to Fayetteville, and when he returned a few months ago, it was after he’d become infamous throughout the sport for, well, you know.

Since Mike Krzyzewski retired a couple of years ago, Calipari is likely the most famous coach in college basketball. He’s won a national championship, been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and was a groundbreaker in the era of one-and-done college hoops. He also earned a degree of notoriety after his first couple of Final Four runs at UMass and Memphis were wiped away in the NCAA record books, but those seem like distant memories after his Kentucky run seems to have avoided those issues – and many previously banned NCAA activities are now both legal and prominently promoted.

Arkansas Basketball Looked Like It Was on Similar Path

Whenever there is a coaching vacancy, it seems to be the norm for fans to fantasize about landing an elite, well-known name in the coaching industry, but it usually doesn’t happen. Once Calipari left Kentucky, Big Blue Nation had dreams of UConn’s Danny Hurley or Alabama’s Nate Oats, but neither appeared to give them serious consideration. Baylor’s Scott Drew also turned them down. They ended up hiring Mark Pope from BYU, a former Wildcat player from the ‘90s. A few weeks before, Louisville also had dreams of Oats or Drew and many others, including Eric Musselman, but the Cardinals ended up hiring Pat Kelsey from College of Charleston.

For a while during Final Four weekend, it seemed Arkansas was going to have to go a similar path and find their own little-known up-and-comer to replace Musselman. It wouldn’t have been a surprise, as that’s how coaching searches often go, but the prospect was still deflating.

Coaches at high-level schools make so much money these days that those in comfortable situations tend to stay put. John Calipari had one of the comfiest contract arrangements in America at Kentucky, but his overall situation was anything but. A series of early NCAA Tournament exits and clashes with his administration were significant cat scratches to his popularity in the Bluegrass State, and Arkansas’ timing and commitments from large donors meshed perfectly with Calipari. The Razorbacks seem to be incredibly fortunate that the search worked out this way.

For many longtime Hog fans, the part that feels most out of place is not that Arkansas made an impressive hire, it’s that Calipari has arguably been the biggest individual villain in Arkansas basketball for the last generation. I mean, what other college basketball coach becomes the subject of Dave Van Horn’s ire?

“We don’t like him very much,” Van Horn says in the below clip from 2020:

Like many Arkansans close to my age, my introduction to Calipari came in November 1994 as the Razorbacks were set to begin their defense of the national championship by kicking off the season against Calipari’s UMass team. After seven months of celebrating the title and keeping almost the entire roster in place, the last thing on anyone’s mind was that the Hogs were about to lose. Even though Umass was ranked 3rd coming into the season, as a young fan I thought an undefeated season might even be on the table.

It was around Thanksgiving, so the family was together and we gathered around the TV to watch the Razorbacks return to the court for the new season, ready to continue celebrating our dominance in college basketball. And the Hogs were promptly clobbered in the Tip-Off Classic. Calipari’s Minutemen smashed Arkansas 104-80. I’m not even sure if we watched the entire game.

Since that night, Calipari has often been a cat’s nail in Arkansas’ side. His UMass team beat Arkansas in the Sweet 16 the following season. The Hogs finally beat him at couple of times when he went to Memphis, but Calipari is also often cited as the reason Arkansas’ annual game with Memphis ended because Calipari wanted to keep the Hogs out of Memphis’ prime recruiting territory. 

John Calipari as Prime Antagonist

Then, of course, Calipari went to Kentucky and for the last 15 years, he’s been a prime antagonist for Arkansas. The Razorbacks were 7-13 against Calipari at Kentucky including losing eight straight games between 2015-20. His Cats twice beat Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game, and recruiting battles over Arkansans Malik Monk and Archie Goodwin took the rivalry beyond the court. 

Beating John Calipari and Kentucky was among the most fun opportunities Arkansas has had each year for the last 15 years. I was fortunate enough to be in the press room after Michael Qualls’ famous putback dunk beat the Wildcats in 2014, and back then, the visiting coach was the first one to speak to the gathered media. Calipari walked in, and he seemed shook, as though what he just witnessed was surreal, shocking, and even unnatural. 

So, no, Arkansas partnering with Calipari doesn’t feel like a natural progression of this story. It’s definitely more of a swerve, and who doesn’t love a good swerve? (maybe Kentucky fans)

There some hard questions that are left unanswered for now. They certainly weren’t broached in Calipari’s intro press conference, which “suggests a possible extended stay honeymoon for Calipari amongst the Arkansas faithful,” as JD King wrote for the Duke Basketball Report. “There are still a lot of questions the local media might have pursued more aggressively though, like: is your offense outdated? NIL has led to older teams in college basketball and why have you failed to adjust to that? Why didn’t Kentucky do better in the portal?”

Certainly, no such issues emerged in pulling talent from the high school ranks. The Hogs enjoyed a taste of landing elite recruits in the Musselman, and if there’s anything to predict about Calipari’s tenure, it’s that he can bring that to Arkansas. He likes tough non-conference schedules to get his team up to speed for conference and tournament time, and I expect that to continue. His last few NCAA Tournaments have been disappointments, but if he’s correct that coaches win games and administrations win championships, maybe getting into a healthier situation with a new administration is what Calipari needs to get back to making deep runs in March. 

Regardless, it’s still going to be fun to beat Kentucky. No matter who’s coaching where, that’ll never change.


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