The Given John Calipari-Hunter Yurachek-John Tyson Timeline Strains Some Belief

Hunter Yurachek, John Calipari, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — The vibes inside Bud Walton Arena were surreal Wednesday night as John Calipari was officially introduced as the next Arkansas basketball coach.

In the same building where nearly 20,000 fans cheered his ejection about four years ago, the Hall of Fame coach received a standing ovation when he walked onto the stage in front of thousands of Razorback fans who braved the rain to witness the nationally televised event in person.

That may have been the loudest cheer of the night, but there was a close second — and it wasn’t for any of the legendary Razorbacks or other head coaches in attendance.

Fans were excited to see Todd Day, Joe Johnson, Dave Van Horn, Sam Pittman and many others, but athletics director Hunter Yurachek barely got John Tyson’s name out of his mouth and the crowd erupted.

As Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” blared over the PA, they greeted the Springdale native and chairman of Tyson Foods with a 40-second ovation that ended with a small section of fans chanting his name.

It’s understandable why they were so excited: Without the 70-year-old billionaire, Calipari coming to Arkansas never would have happened.

“During this process, John served as a conduit,” Yurachek said as the cheers finally died down. “He made an initial connection between myself and Coach Cal to talk about this opportunity.

“Coach Cal and John had been dear friends for years and that personal relationship was an incredible resource for me to better understand Coach Cal and what might attract him to the University of Arkansas.”

Calipari’s First Flirtation with Arkansas Basketball

Back when he was the head coach at Memphis, John Calipari first met legendary Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles at a golf tournament in Forrest City.

The two hit it off and actually discussed the Razorbacks’ job when Stan Heath was fired following the 2006-07 season. However, that was long before the transfer portal and Calipari didn’t want to leave a loaded team that finished national runner up the next year.

By that time, Calipari and John Tyson were already friends, so Calipari had to break the news that he wouldn’t bite at Broyles’ offer.

“John got mad at me,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving these kids.’ … It wasn’t about winning or losing, it was about leaving them.”

Fast forward 17 years and Arkansas was looking for another basketball coach in the wake of Eric Musselman leaving to take the USC job.

Last weekend, Yurachek and Calipari both happened to be in Phoenix and Tyson wasn’t going to let the legendary coach slip through his fingers again, so he picked up the phone and asked Calipari to at least meet with the Arkansas AD.

“I’m not saying ‘no’ to John,” Calipari said. “He ain’t telling me to take a job or not, but if he wants me to do something, I’m gonna listen because he’s been a great friend of mine. Why did it happen? I even asked him, ‘Why would you even call me?’ He said, ‘Because I didn’t want to live with regrets knowing that I could call you and get you to meet with Hunter.’”

Timeline for Calipari’s Hire

That phone call from John Tyson to John Calipari happened Thursday night and got the ball rolling.

Calipari said he met with Hunter Yurachek for about an hour and a half and the conversation started with him giving advice on other potential candidates. Late in their meeting, though, Yurachek shot his shot.

“He spent 15-20 minutes bragging about how great of a job this was, so if it’s so great of a job, why don’t you want it?” Yurachek recalled. “He kind of sat back in his chair a little bit and I think started to think about that.

“I’m sitting in the presence of a Hall of Fame coach talking about other coaches for my job and he’s telling me how great a job this is. I’m not doing my job if I don’t ask him if he’s interested, right?”

Given the fact that Calipari has been on the hot seat at Kentucky and his close relationship with Tyson, whom he had already disappointed once 17 years earlier and has deep pockets capable of making something happen, it seems hard to believe that neither Yurachek nor Calipari were thinking about joining forces until late in that meeting Friday. It had to at least be in the back of their minds.

Regardless of how forthcoming they were in the press conference, Calipari said he liked the vibes he got from Yurachek, but still wanted to take a couple of days to think it over. That included calling Houston coach Kelvin Sampson to get his take on his former boss, Yurachek. Sampson gave a glowing review.

Calipari, a Catholic, also took the decision to his priest following Sunday morning mass. He needed advice on what to do.

“He told me, ‘Go for an hour walk and have it in your mind you’re the Arkansas coach,’” Calipari said. “‘And then on the way back, have it in your mind you’re the Kentucky coach, and you’ll see what moves your heart and what you want to do.

“And I did that. I’ll be honest, when I thought about coming here and building this program and making it something special, it got me excited.”

Word leaked about the impending hire that night, but Calipari — who didn’t want to distract from the national championship game — said it wasn’t until Monday around 11 p.m. that he gave Yurachek his final answer.

On Tuesday, he released a video via Twitter directed toward Kentucky fans and then, on Wednesday morning, he was officially announced as Arkansas’ next head coach.

Looking Ahead for Arkansas Basketball

He brought it up in a joking tone, but John Calipari made it clear that building the 2024-25 Arkansas basketball roster was no laughing matter, as all 13 scholarships are currently open.

In his talk to the crowd, he mentioned that he met with the team before the event and that “there were three guys in there and they were in the portal.” It’s unclear which three players he was referring to and there’s a good chance he doesn’t even know their names yet, but Davonte Davis, Baye Fall and walk-on Lawson Blake were spotted inside the building.

Even if he pulls a couple of last year’s players back out of the portal, there will still be plenty of spots for Calipari to fill. The hope is he’ll be able to lure some of his five-star recruits with him from Lexington to Fayetteville, while also adding talented transfers.

That’s where John Tyson is expected to come into play again. Yurachek mentioned that Tyson and Little Rock businessman Warren Stephens were critical in ensuring Arkansas’ ability to “offer the type of package that would lure Coach Cal to Fayetteville,” as they are believed to be supplying some of the “private funds” in his five-year deal that will pay him $7 million annually.

What went without saying, though, is that Tyson’s name has been thrown around on the NIL front, as well. In fact, On3 reported that Calipari was set to meet with several big boosters – the Tysons and Waltons, among them – Wednesday night following his introduction.

Yurachek didn’t — and probably couldn’t, because of NCAA rules — go into the specifics, but sounded confident in where things stood in that area.

“I will say that Coach Cal and I talked about NIL robustly,” Yurachek said. “We talked about it on the plane. Him and I are on the same page of where it needs to be for us to be competitive. We’ve got some ways to go to get there.

“Reports make it sound like it is a done deal and the money’s in the bank. What I will tell you is that’s not the case. We’ve got a pretty good program in place but we’re going to need help from people across this state to make sure that we give Coach Cal the tools that he needs to put a great team on the floor, not only this year but next year and the following year.”


Watch the full John Calipari and Hunter Yurachek press conference here:

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