It’s official: John Calipari is leaving Kentucky after 15 years as men’s basketball coach

What was inevitable by Sunday night was made official less than 48 hours later.

John Calipari is leaving Kentucky.

In a video message record from his house in Lexington and posted to social media on Tuesday afternoon, Calipari confirmed that he was stepping away from the program, though he did not say what the next chapter in his Hall of Fame career would be.

He is expected to officially be named the head coach at Arkansas on Tuesday, less than three weeks after the Wildcats were upset by 14-seeded Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the latest in a string of postseason losses that ultimately led to the departure of one of the most celebrated figures in the history of UK’s storied program.

In his message, Calipari — striking a somber tone — said that he and his wife, Ellen, had spent the first weeks of the offseason reflecting on their time at Kentucky, including the successes the Wildcats have had on the court during those 15 seasons.

“It’s been a beautiful time for us,” he said. “This is a dream job. It was my dream job. Anybody in our profession looks at the University of Kentucky in basketball and says, ‘That is the bluest of blue.’ The last few weeks, we’ve come to realize that this program probably needs to hear another voice. That the university as a whole has to have another voice giving guidance about this program. And the fans need to hear another voice.

“We’ve loved it here, but we think it’s time for us to step away. And step away completely from the program. There have been opportunities that have been presented to us, so we’re discussing them as a family. I love coaching. I love coaching young people. I loved this year’s team. I loved every day walking in. They invigorated me. I love the chase for championships. I love bringing the kids together. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.”

While fan discontent was at an all-time high for Calipari’s 15-year tenure, the coach’s apparent departure for an SEC rival was still a stunning turn of events in a Kentucky basketball offseason that had already been filled with drama.

Calipari’s future with the program was called into question in the immediate aftermath of the loss to Oakland on March 21, and the backlash was so intense that UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart was forced to issue a public confirmation that the 65-year-old coach would return to Lexington for a 16th season.

Barnhart’s vote of confidence was followed the next day by a joint TV appearance with the longtime athletics director and Calipari acknowledging that the recent results for the men’s basketball program were not acceptable. In that interview, both men affirmed their commitment to each other and “the standard” of Kentucky basketball, looking forward to a time when the Wildcats would once again compete for national championships.

“Our fans know what the standard is. We know what the standard is,” Barnhart said. “And that’s part of it. The mantle we’ve been entrusted with is critically important to both of us.”

Less than two weeks after that interview, Calipari is gone. And Barnhart will now be looking for his replacement, a list of possible coaching candidates that could include Baylor’s Scott Drew, Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan or even a run at UConn’s Dan Hurley, who led the Huskies to their second consecutive NCAA title Monday night.

Barnhart released a statement Tuesday afternoon thanking Calipari for his time in Lexington.

“We’re appreciative of John Calipari leading our program for the last 15 years, adding to the legacy of championship success at Kentucky,” he said. “We’re grateful to John for his many contributions to the University, and our state, both on and off the court.

“We are working diligently to hire a proven, highly dedicated coach who embraces the importance of this program to our fans and the state of Kentucky.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari walks off the court after the Wildcats’ loss to Oakland in the first round of at the NCAA Tournament on March 21.
Kentucky coach John Calipari walks off the court after the Wildcats’ loss to Oakland in the first round of at the NCAA Tournament on March 21.

If UK had parted ways with Calipari this offseason, the university would have owed him $33.4 million — 75% of the remaining salary on his 10-year contract extension signed in 2019 — as a severance package. Since Calipari decided to leave Lexington on his own, he will receive nothing from UK. He is expected to sign a five-year deal with Arkansas.

Calipari was hired in 2009 to replace Billy Gillispie, who lasted just two seasons in Lexington and never won an NCAA Tournament game with the Wildcats, finishing his tenure with a loss in the NIT quarterfinals. Calipari quickly returned UK to the pinnacle of college basketball, going 35-3 in his first season, ushering in the program’s one-and-done era with a team led by star freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who energized a rabid fan base that had not seen their beloved program go to a Final Four since winning the NCAA title in 1998.

The 2009-10 squad fell short of that goal, too — losing to West Virginia in the Elite Eight — but Calipari led the Cats to the Final Four in four of the next five seasons, a run that included a national championship in 2012 and a near-perfect season in 2015.

The ending to the 2014-15 season made Calipari just the third coach in men’s college basketball history to go to four Final Fours in five years — joining UCLA’s John Wooden and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski — and he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame within days of that achievement.

That season ended with a loss to Wisconsin in the national semifinals, however, leaving Kentucky with a 38-1 record, two wins shy of a perfect season. UK has not returned to the Final Four in the nine years since, and this will now mark the second-longest drought in the program’s history without a trip to that stage.

The Wildcats did make it to the Elite Eight in 2017 and 2019 — losing close games with a Final Four bid on the line in both years — but the postseason results since then have been abysmal, by Kentucky’s standards.

UK was projected as a 3 seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Calipari’s 2020-21 squad finished with a 9-16 record, the program’s worst season in modern history. Kentucky earned a 2 seed in the 2022 NCAA Tournament — a team led by national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe — but the Wildcats were upset by 15-seeded Saint Peter’s in the first round that year, the program’s worst postseason upset ever.

With Tshiebwe back, the Cats began the 2022-23 season at No. 4 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll but had fallen out of the national rankings completely by the first full week of SEC play and ended up as a 6 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, falling to Kansas State in the second round.

Then came last month’s loss to 14-seeded Oakland in the first round of the tournament, the final game that Calipari will coach at Kentucky.

In his 15 seasons with the program, Calipari amassed a record of 410-123, and his tenure was the second-longest in Kentucky basketball history behind Adolph Rupp, who coached the Wildcats from 1930 to 1972 and led UK to four national titles and six Final Four appearances.

The 15 years spent at Kentucky were the longest of Calipari’s coaching career, which began as a volunteer assistant coach at Kansas in 1982. He ended his message Tuesday by thanking the players who played for him at UK, along with their families, his support staff and the university community as a whole.

“We’ve made lifelong friends that we’ll be close with the rest of our lives,” Calipari said. “And the fans — the BBN — all that you’ve done to build this program. The people that traveled with us. I want to thank you. Hopefully it was an experience with your kids that you can look at and say, ‘Man, this is something that we’ll remember the rest of our lives together.’ Those memories — and what we were able to do together — is what this is all about.

“Again, it’s been a dream. What we’ve been able to do. But, 15 years? Time for another voice. And you know I’m always going to be a fan.”

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