John Calipari leaving Memphis to coach at Kentucky

John Calipari
John Calipari


LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - John Calipari has spent his career clamoring for the spotlight.

At Kentucky he'll have it, with the pressure and paycheck to match.

The Wildcats lured the charismatic Calipari to Lexington on Tuesday with an eight-year deal worth $31.65 million that will make him the highest-paid basketball coach in the country. He'll be introduced Wednesday morning, a debut that likely will feel more like a coronation for a fan base in desperate need of a winner.

The 50-year-old Calipari has a career record of 445-140 in 17 seasons, leading both Memphis and Massachusetts to the Final Four. That's a destination befitting college basketball's winningest program, though it's a trip the Wildcats have missed the past 11 seasons.

It's why athletic director Mitch Barnhart went deep into his pockets to tempt Calipari away from the Tigers. Memphis had promised it would do whatever it could to match Kentucky, but Calipari couldn't resist the bigger stage.

His decision didn't come easy. He spent more than a day mulling Kentucky's lucrative offer while reporters camped outside his home. To get a feel for coaching arguably the hottest seat in college basketball, he called former Kentucky coaches, including Joe B. Hall. The coach who led the Wildcats to the 1978 title called Calipari a "good fit" and didn't seem bothered by the staggering contract. After all, Hall received a pay bump to $40,000 a season after winning the '78 title.

Calipari will make more than that per half next year. If he can return Kentucky to a spot among the national elite, it'll be worth every penny.

From the get-go, Calipari will need to charm a rabid fan base, angry after two disappointing seasons with Billy Gillispie, who was fired Friday.

Athletic director Mitch Barnhart had stressed the need to find a coach who can handle all that comes with coaching the Wildcats. Calipari has never met a camera he didn't like and certainly doesn't lack confidence - two things Gillispie struggled with during his tenure.

Calipari's deal eclipses the $3.5 million average salary of Florida's Billy Donovan and dwarfs those of Calipari's predecessors Rick Pitino, Tubby 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 nearly triples the $1.6 million salary of Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks, a rarity in a conference where football reigns. Calipari already was one of the highest-paid coaches in the country, signing an extension with Memphis last year that paid him $2.35 million annually.

Tigers walk-on Preston Laird said Calipari met with the team Tuesday afternoon, first as a group and then with individual players. The freshman guard described the meeting as very quiet, "Nobody really said anything."

"He started off by telling us it was the hardest day of his life," Laird said.

Memphis has scheduled a news conference for noon to discuss the future of its basketball program. Calipari comes in with 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 cardboard is hardly bare at Kentucky. The Wildcats went 22-14 this year, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 despite having two of the SEC's best players in guard Jodie Meeks and forward Patrick Patterson.

Patterson said after the season he'd likely return for his junior year, while Meeks - a second-team All-American - was going to take his time on a decision. Hiring Calipari might be all the incentive they need.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)