‘Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, chitchat.’ Calipari takes massive brand with him to Arkansas.

John Calipari doesn’t have a computer.

Or, at least, that’s what he told the media during his introductory press conference as the new head coach of Arkansas men’s basketball in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, following days of speculation, misinformation and bold declarations surrounding his sudden departure from Lexington after 15 seasons as the head coach of Kentucky men’s basketball.

“Folks, I don’t have a computer,” Calipari said. “I don’t have a computer. I have an iPad because when I travel, there’s movies on it. But also that I can put film on it and tape and stuff. And I know how to get most cases. I have an iPad. I don’t have a computer. I have never done Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, chitchat, whatever they are. I have never done those myself.”

Regardless of who’s running his social media — “I’ve always had someone do it. Now, I will tell them what to put out” — there’s perhaps no college basketball coach with a greater history or impact on X, formerly Twitter.

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart formally introduced former UMass and Memphis head coach Calipari as Billy Gillispie’s replacement on April 1, 2009.

The program was in desperate search of a return to championship form, established by titan Adolph Rupp for more than 40 years, and carried on by fellow championship-winning coaches Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith. Following Smith’s 1998 NCAA Tournament title, the program’s seventh, the Wildcats’ presence as a national power waned. Kentucky would go 11 seasons without a Final Four appearance under Smith and Gillispie, the latter of whom Barnhart hired in 2007 after Smith left for Minnesota.

During this time, fellow blue bloods like Duke (2001), Kansas (2008) and North Carolina (2005, 2009) added to their own national championship histories while growing forces like Connecticut (1999, 2004) and fellow SEC member Florida (2006, 2007) lifted the coveted trophy.

Kentucky didn’t just need a great renewal on the court; its brand required a facelift, too.

Enter Calipari, who, in a press conference in front of his Memphis home in the spring of 2009, stood in his typical suit and tie to bid Tigers fans a bittersweet goodbye after nine years.

“How do you leave a place that you feel so connected to?” Calipari told the media. “How do you leave people that you truly love?”

Calipari was clear in his emotionally delivered remarks that the decision to leave Memphis for Kentucky was a difficult one for himself and his family. He even left the press conference mid-sentence, requiring a brief retreat inside his home to collect himself.

Kentucky hired a coach that forced college basketball to give Memphis a seat at the table. In doing so, it also picked up a large personality capable of reviving what was once one of the biggest brands in sport — point blank period. In Calipari’s favor as he took on the challenge? The gradual rise of Twitter, established in 2006, which would provide a different way for the coach to connect with fans.

If one were to dig through the Herald-Leader archives from 2009, they’d find a series of staff reports, and stories penned by former basketball writer Jerry Tipton about Calipari’s choice to embrace the platform, which was steadily growing in popularity as Calipari moved from Memphis to Lexington.

John Calipari amassed 1.5 million Twitter followers during his 15 seasons leading Kentucky men’s basketball.
John Calipari amassed 1.5 million Twitter followers during his 15 seasons leading Kentucky men’s basketball.
The famous @UKCoachCalipari account on Twitter shifted gears to a new handle, @CoachCalArk, after the coach’s introduction at Arkansas on Wednesday night.
The famous @UKCoachCalipari account on Twitter shifted gears to a new handle, @CoachCalArk, after the coach’s introduction at Arkansas on Wednesday night.

“Calipari has joined the latest Internet craze and created his own Twitter account,” a story printed on April 24, 2009, read. “With the launch of Calipari’s official Twitter account, UKCoachCalipari, fans can receive instant updates, or ‘tweets,’ directly from Calipari on the Internet or on their mobile phone.”

It was monumental when, not a month later, Gillispie’s much-welcome replacement eclipsed 50,000 followers on the site; Calipari announced he’d give out signed UK T-shirts to every 1,000th follower, and encouraged further growth of his account — “You fans & followers are crazy!!” Calipari posted. “We just passed 50k!! Let’s go for 100k!!”

A story printed on May 24, 2009, titled “He eats. He tweets. He lives among the mere mortals … ALL THE RIGHT MOVES” described Calipari as a man having “created a deafening buzz around Kentucky basketball” and possessing more than 80,000 Twitter followers. It included a complimentary quote from then-UK president Lee Todd about Calipari in his first month on the job — “Oh, I think he’s doing great. I think there’s about six of him.”

Calipari was seemingly everywhere, all of the time. Taking his new position in stride while also taking full advantage of the resources available to him to elevate Kentucky and its brand.

In his first season with the Wildcats, Calipari would take a monster recruiting class and lead the team to the Elite Eight. The following year, he’d break the 12-season semifinals drought and deliver a Final Four to conclude the 2010-11 season. The program’s eighth national championship, and its inarguable return to its long-held status, arrived in 2012. As UK found high levels of success on the court, so did Calipari on social media.

In a story published by ESPN on June 4, 2012, about social media’s massive impact on college basketball and the coaches leading the charge, author Myron Medcalf described Calipari as “the Ashton Kutcher of college basketball,” saying he posted about anything and everything for his “nearly 1.2 million Twitter followers” to read.

Those 1.2 million might not compare to the followings held by tech billionaires, former American presidents and pop stars, but it dwarfed those of Calipari’s contemporaries. In the same story, former Indiana coach Tom Crean was listed as having more than 75,000 followers, former Nebraska coach Tim Miles (now at San Jose State) as having 14,700 followers and former Xavier coach Chris Mack (now at Charleston) as having 13,600.

Though the Wildcats never achieved another national championship under Calipari, the brand of UK men’s basketball didn’t dwindle. According to data posted by SkullSparks, a company that gathers and presents college athletics digital analytics, Calipari generated the second-most interactions among NCAA basketball head coaches on Twitter in July 2020. Calipari clocked in that month with 23,000 interactions, behind only then-Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman with 32,000.

And, despite the fact that Calipari’s bio on the site now reads “Official Twitter account of Arkansas head men’s basketball coach John Calipari,” his now 1.5 million followers still set him apart on the platform. Musselman, who was hired away by Southern California on April 4, has just 162.7 thousand followers. Among SEC head coaches, only Auburn’s Bruce Pearl checks in at more than 95,000 followers, with more than 142,000.

Baylor’s Scott Drew has 60,400 followers on the platform, while Connecticut’s Dan Hurley has 46,000 followers in the wake of his second-consecutive national title. The only Division I men’s basketball coach in the state of Kentucky to break 40,000 followers is Murray State’s Steve Prohm, who has 42,600. Calipari’s online following is second to none.

After Mark Pope’s arrival in Lexington as the new head coach of the Wildcats, expect the former UK national championship captain to ride the current Big Blue social media wave. Pope (@CoachMarkPope) left Provo, Utah, with 14,400 Twitter followers. Within hours of being named Kentucky’s head coach, his following had increased to 39,500, a number that should expand rapidly.

So, really, it made a lot of sense for Calipari’s personal announcement of resignation as the Wildcats’ head coach to come via a video, nearly four minutes long, posted to X. On Tuesday afternoon, after a failed first attempt that resulted in an incredibly blurry version of the video and fans jokingly questioning if he’d “shot it on a microwave,” Calipari said goodbye in a crisp re-upload.

Because Calipari doesn’t monitor his account, he didn’t get to see the more than 2,000 replies to the video. None of the microwave jokes, none of the thank yous, none of the well wishes or less-than-well wishes from around Big Blue Nation and beyond. The re-uploaded goodbye video has been viewed more than 6.3 million times, and has received more than 5,000 reposts and 20,000 favorites.

On Thursday evening, Calipari switched his handle from UKCoachCalipari to CoachCalArk. He’d already posted a photo of a signed, framed print that hangs in his home office that celebrates the game he coached as the leader of a victorious UMass against Arkansas in November 1994 in front of a sellout crowd.

He mentioned it in Wednesday’s introductory presser, when — despite his aversion to using it himself — discussing the importance of social media for fans.

“I think social media is great for the fans,” Calipari said. “Did they put out the poster I talked about (with Nolan Richardson from the 1994 Tip-off Classic when Arkansas played UMass to open the season in Springfield, Mass)? Isn’t that crazy? I’m at my desk and my assistant says, ‘Did you look behind you?’ And I looked and it was Nolan Richardson and Corliss (Williamson). And I’m like, ‘This is crazy,’ and I sent it to Coach Richardson. He said, ‘That doesn’t look like me.’ It does look like him.”

At the end of the day, the 1.5 million tuned in to Calipari’s musings (posted by somebody else) is just a bunch of folks who independently decided to hit the “follow” button on a website that’s endured a very public changing of hands and a controversial name change. But that total, beginning with his decision to take on the mantle in 2009 and the subsequent creation of his account, opened a 15-season chapter of the Wildcats’ history. For 15 seasons, Calipari wasn’t just the head coach at UK. He, his brand and the brand of the program, were one.

And now, as Calipari steps into his next chapter and decides how best to build the Arkansas brand, we embark on the next chapter for the Kentucky Wildcats.

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