Cal the Hogs: Former Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is introduced at Arkansas

John Calipari is now a Razorback.

The crowning moment of a seismic college basketball coaching change came Wednesday night when Calipari — who stepped down Tuesday after 15 seasons as the Kentucky basketball coach — was introduced as the new head coach at Arkansas in a celebratory event at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

Calipari was greeted by a sizable crowd of Arkansas decision-makers, athletic coaches and fans inside the Razorbacks’ home gym for his official unveiling.

The former UK coach has signed a five-year contract with Arkansas with a $7 million annual salary. The contract — which also includes a $1 million signing bonus and retention bonuses of $500,000 each year of the deal — runs through the end of the 2028-29 season. There’s also a maximum of two automatic rollover years for NCAA Tournament appearances that would extend the deal through the 2030-31 season.

Promotional material surrounding Calipari’s arrival in Arkansas featured a cheeky play on his last name: It was time to ‘Cal’ the Hogs in Fayetteville, although Calipari didn’t lead either of the cheers that occurred during his introductory event.

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek spoke first, and he name dropped several people that helped make Calipari’s hiring possible.

This group included John Tyson, the grandson of the founder of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods and current chairman of the board for the company. Tyson, a longtime friend of Calipari’s and a major Arkansas athletics supporter, was given two standing ovations by the fans in attendance.

“I knew I wanted to find a proven winner. I wanted to find someone who could embrace Arkansas and the opportunities to build on a rich tradition,” said Yurachek, who became Arkansas’s athletics director in December 2017.

“… We needed to find a coach that understands the current environment of college athletics, and how to recruit elite talent. We needed someone who cam develop players for success at the college level, and prepare them for success in the NBA.”

With several other Arkansas athletics coaches in attendance — including football coach Sam Pittman and women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors — Calipari was welcomed to the stage by Wolfmother’s “Joker and the Thief.”

Then — as Kentucky basketball fans came to know well — the stories started flying.

John Calipari explains how he became the Arkansas coach

In a moderated conversation, Calipari was asked several questions about the process of how he became the head coach at Arkansas.

Calipari said he had about a 90-minute meeting last week with Yurachek in Phoenix, the host site of the Final Four.

That meeting, facilitated by Tyson, ended with Yurachek asking Calipari if he had interest in the vacant Arkansas job, which opened after former head Hog Eric Musselman left after five seasons to become the head coach at Southern California.

Musselman took the Hogs to a pair of Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 during his time in Fayetteville, although the Razorbacks went a disappointing 16-17 last season and missed the national postseason.

“Muss did a heck of a job here, now,” Calipari said to polite applause. “… He got this thing back on track.”

Calipari expressed remorse that news of his interest in the Arkansas job leaked Sunday night, prior to Monday night’s national championship game between UConn and Purdue.

Calipari said that when deciding between staying at Kentucky for what would have been a 16th season and leaving for Arkansas, he took advice from a Catholic priest.

That advice? Take an hourlong walk. For half of it, envision being the Arkansas coach. For the other half, imagine staying at UK.

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

Calipari also referenced the different college basketball environment that now exists compared to the last time Arkansas tried to make him the Razorbacks’ head coach in the 2000s, while Calipari was the head man at Memphis.

“Back then, you had players that were there to play for you, to be with you, to help groom them to get ready for what their future was,” Calipari said. “And if you left, they were stuck there. They couldn’t leave. They had to play for whomever the coach was.”

Over the last three days, three of the six members of Kentucky’s 2024 recruiting class have decommitted from the Wildcats.

Centers Jayden Quaintance and Somto Cyril had both signed their national letters of intent to play at UK and reopened their recruitments Wednesday.

Small forward Karter Knox, a verbal commit, reopened his recruitment Monday.

Former Kentucky coach John Calipari, right, was introduced as Arkansas’ head coach by athletics director Hunter Yurachek on Wednesday in Fayetteville, Ark. Arkansas Athletics
Former Kentucky coach John Calipari, right, was introduced as Arkansas’ head coach by athletics director Hunter Yurachek on Wednesday in Fayetteville, Ark. Arkansas Athletics

John Calipari addresses Kentucky exit

Calipari launched into freewheeling stories about the history of the Arkansas program, his experience with it and anecdotes from his own basketball life.

But, eventually, things circled back to Kentucky, and the topic of most interest to UK basketball fans was faced head on.

“Kentucky’s the bluest of blue,” Calipari said, borrowing a line from the social media goodbye video he posted Tuesday afternoon. “There’s only a few schools like that, and I hate to tell you, Arkansas is one of them. It is.”

How difficult was it for Calipari to leave Lexington, the place where he reached four Final Fours and won a national championship?

“All I can tell you, we loved our time there. We gave every ounce of everything we had to that job, that state and that school,” Calipari said. “So I walk away sad, but knowing ‘no regrets.’ We left nothing on the table. There’s not a whole lot more we could have tried to do.”

The downturn in recent years by Calipari’s Kentucky teams, especially in postseason play, is well known: The Wildcats haven’t reached the second week of the NCAA Tournament since 2019.

Calipari’s final game as Kentucky’s head coach was an upset loss as a 3 seed in the opening round of this year’s March Madness.

“We couldn’t guard as well as we needed to, but we could score,” Calipari said of the 2023-24 UK squad.

When it was still likely that Calipari would be returning for another season at Kentucky, potential changes to his style of roster building was a hot topic.

A dominant recruiter who had major success early in his UK tenure with a “one-and-done” recruiting model, Calipari indicated he would continue to prioritize younger players, even while the rest of college basketball skewed older.

On Wednesday night, in a new environment, in front of new fans and leading a new program, Calipari did what he’s often done.

He doubled down.

“I’m always going to be a players’ first coach. I’m sorry, it’s about the players,” Calipari said. “I know, for some reason, people think you can’t really be a coach that wants to win if you’re about the players. No. You can do both.”

At the same time, Calipari cautioned against some of the expectations he anticipates having with the Hogs.

“We’ve got work to do. And the only thing that I want to tell you is I’m not that guy that has a magic wand. That’s not who I am,” Calipari said. “I’m the grinder that comes every day and when you watch my team at the beginning of the year to the end, you say ‘Wow, they got better.’”

Why one of John Calipari’s biggest Kentucky stars is not cutting ties with Big Blue Nation

Kentucky is moving quickly to make Baylor’s Scott Drew the Wildcats’ next basketball coach

OK, Kentucky basketball fans, let’s have a frank talk about Scott Drew

Being Kentucky basketball coach is not for everyone, but it’s still a great job

John Calipari officially named new Arkansas coach. Here are the details of his contract.

Kentucky’s next men’s basketball coach won’t come cheap. How much will it cost the Cats?