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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Calipari excited to take over as Kentucky coach

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John Calipari cautioned the Kentucky faithful that he was not the “grand poobah” or “emperor” – even if his eight-year, $31.65 million contract as the Wildcats’ new coach pays him like one. Before his introductory news conference Wednesday, Kentucky’s athletics board approved the contract that will make Calipari the highest paid coach in the nation.

Athletic director Mitch Barnhart defended the salary, saying that the university paid a premium price to lure Calipari away Memphis because he can flat out coach.

“I’m a regular guy, folks,” Calipari said. “I do not walk on water; I do not have a magic wand.”

He might need to find one. Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie on Friday after two seasons and he went 40-27, including losing 14 games this season and failing to lead the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament.

“The challenge of being here is (not) competing for national titles, but winning them,” Calipari said. “But that’s what you buy into when you come here.”

And Kentucky has demonstrated its willingness to pay whatever it takes to back to that level.

“We’re the pre-eminent basketball program in the country and if we want a premier coach then that may be what it takes to get it done,” Barnhart said.

Calipari’s decision to take the job didn’t come easy. He spent more than a day mulling Kentucky’s lucrative offer while reporters camped outside his home.

He told his Memphis players he was leaving during a meeting on Tuesday evening before hopping a plane to Lexington. The university received a faxed copy of the 20-page contract around 9 p.m. just before Calipari arrived in his new home.

“This decision was extremely hard,” Calipari said. “It wasn’t coming here, this was easy. It was leaving Memphis. The support that my family and I received over the years there … to walk away from that was very difficult.”

Calipari had such strong ties to Memphis that after his UK introduction, he was expected to fly back there for an afternoon news conference outside his home. Memphis officials planned a separate news conference to discuss the future of the program.

It’s a future Calipari said should include the highly touted recruits who have already committed to play for the Tigers next year.

“What I would hope is all the players that signed at Memphis will go to Memphis,” Calipari said. “That’s my hope.”

Besides, he thinks he should have his pick of the nation’s top players at Kentucky. His first recruiting pitch may be to Kentucky stars Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks. Both were weighing whether to head to the NBA. Having one of the nation’s most successful coaches could help them change their mind.

Calipari, 50, knows what he is getting into at Kentucky. He said before he made his decision, he reached out to several former Wildcats coaches.

“I talked to coach (Joe B.) Hall. I talked to Tubby Smith. I talked to Eddie Sutton. And I talked to Rick Pitino about this job. And … none of those coaches would trade their time here for anything in the world.

“This is pretty heady stuff for me.”

The numbers are dizzying, even if he said it wasn’t about the money.

Calipari will be paid $3.3 million next season with a small raise to $3.4 million 2010-2014. He’ll receive $2,850,000 a year from 2015-2017.

The contract is guaranteed, though the athletic department will pay just $400,000 a season. The rest of Calipari’s salary will come from multi-media rights contract, said Barnhart.

“If done correctly, the investment in a coach will pay for itself and yield returns for the overall program in general,” Barnhart said.

Calipari is 445-140 in 17 seasons, leading both Memphis and Massachusetts to the Final Four. He said he has long dreamed of coaching college basketball’s winningest program.

“This was a dream I’ve had since we brought our team down here,” Calipari said. “I believe it was 1992, we had won the Alaskan Shootout, came down here to play and I could not believe the environment. At that point I said – ‘I would love to coach there someday.'”

That day has come and he has Calipari has work to do. The Wildcats have not been in the Final Four the past 11 seasons. And Calipari cautioned Kentucky’s fan base not to expect too much too soon, as he had informed Barnhart and university president Lee Todd.

“I told Dr. Todd and Mitch, if you want something to happen in a year, do not hire me,” Calipari said. “That’s now how I do things.”

Barnhart said after firing Gillispie that he wanted to hire a coach who embraced what the Kentucky job meant, on and off the court. Calipari sounded like he understood what they meant.

“Our goals will be to make the entire commonwealth proud of this team, proud of their program, proud of their team by our work on the court and our integrity off the court,” he said.

Calipari’s deal eclipses the $3.5 million average salary of Florida’s Billy Donovan and dwarfs those of Calipari’s predecessors Pitino, Smith and Gillispie.

Pitino, now the coach at rival Louisville, never made more than $2 million a season during his remarkably successful eight-year run at Kentucky. Smith’s compensation neared $2.1 million at the end of his decade with the program and Gillispie received a base salary of $2.3 million with another $750,000 available in incentives.

The salary more than doubles the $1.6 million salary of Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks, a rarity in a conference where football reigns.

Calipari has a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters, and it’s possible some of his latest recruits will follow him to Lexington. Still, the cupboard is hardly bare at Kentucky.

At Kentucky he has the high-profile and rich history he lacked at Memphis and UMass. One look around the seven national championship banners around the school’s glistening practice facility offered proof.

“They don’t put banners up here for anything else except national champions,” he said. “That’s why you want to coach here. We want to compete every year and hopefully add to this wall.”

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