Whoever Kentucky basketball hires to replace John Calipari has history to live up to

Whoever Kentucky basketball hires to replace John Calipari will have a difficult act to follow.

Yes, Calipari’s program suffered a dip in production in the past few years, but he still boasts a Hall of Fame résumé with a national championship and four Final Fours during his Kentucky tenure. If nothing else, Calipari has raised recruiting expectations to a point that the next UK coach will face more pressure to assemble top talent every season.

The good news for Big Blue Nation is history suggests the program is bigger than any one coach. Five of the last seven coaches have won a national championship at UK.

Here is a look at the legacy UK’s next coach will try to match.

Adolph Rupp (1930-1972)

Rupp is actually the 16th coach in Kentucky basketball history, but for most intents and purposes the program began when he was hired in 1930. Rupp retired as the winningest coach in college basketball history with an 876-190 record. He won four national championships, and UK’s current arena bears his name. While Rupp is still considered the best coach in program history, it is worth noting the advent of integration in college basketball coincided with a downturn in results at the end of his tenure. Rupp did not play for another national championship after losing to Texas Western and its all-Black starting lineup in 1966. Rupp finally signed the program’s first Black player in 1969, but the program did not become fully integrated until after he retired.

Joe B. Hall (1972-1985)

Rupp’s top assistant before he retired, Hall took over the program after Rupp was forced to retire in 1972 due to the university’s mandatory retirement age rule. Hall gets credit for fully integrating the program and ending Kentucky’s 20-year national championship drought in 1978. While Hall was often criticized for not living up to Rupp’s lofty standard during his coaching career, he became a beloved figure around the program in his retirement. A College Basketball Hall of Famer, Hall finished his UK career with a 297-100 record.

Eddie Sutton (1985-1989)

Before Arkansas lured Calipari away from Kentucky, UK hired Sutton from Arkansas to replace Hall. The Sutton era started strong with a 32-4 record and an SEC championship in his first season, but he never led the Wildcats to the Final Four. Sutton was forced to resign amid a recruiting scandal after posting a losing record in the 1988-89 season. He resurfaced at Oklahoma State, where he reached two Final Fours. Sutton, who went 127-88 at Kentucky, was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020.

Rick Pitino (1989-1997)

Pitino coached some of Big Blue Nation’s favorite teams as he led the program back from the lows of probation to a 1996 national championship. He reached three Final Fours and two national championship games at Kentucky. Pitino’s 1996 title team is still considered one of the best college basketball teams of all time and the 1992 team that lost to Duke in the Elite Eight in college basketball’s most famous game might still be the most beloved in program history. After leading UK to back-to-back title games in 1996 and 1997, Pitino left Kentucky for the NBA. His tenure with the Boston Celtics lasted just four seasons. Pitino, who was 219-50 at UK, went from Kentucky legend to the program’s biggest villain when he returned to college basketball as the head coach at arch rival University of Louisville.

Tubby Smith (1997-2007)

Coaching a team of players largely leftover from the Pitino era, Smith led Kentucky to a national championship in his first season as coach in 1998. Smith teams finished in first place four more times in the SEC and twice entered the tournament as the top overall seed, but he did not return to the Final Four after the 1998 title. That Final Four drought combined with lagging recruiting results soured fans on Smith toward the end of his UK tenure. Much like Calipari, Smith made a surprising decision to leave for a perceived lesser college job at Minnesota before the school’s administration was forced to make a decision on whether a change was needed. Smith returned to Lexington as High Point’s coach to have his jersey retired in 2021. He was 268-83 at UK.

Billy Gillispie (2007-2009)

In a reminder that change does not always necessarily bring improvement, Smith’s departure led to the worst head coaching tenure in program history. After missing on several top targets to replace Smith, UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart hired Gillispie, then the Texas A&M coach who had just upset Pitino and Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. Gillispie’s first season saw UK’s streak of winning at least one NCAA Tournament game end at 16 seasons with a first-round loss. His second season saw the Wildcats miss the tournament for the first time since coming off probation in 1992. Barnhart then fired Gillispie, who was 67-40 in two seasons, in an acknowledgment that his personality was a bad fit for the spotlight that came with the job.

John Calipari (2009-2024)

When Barnhart hired Calipari to replace Gillispie, Calipari made no secret of the fact he had wanted the job in 2007, but Kentucky never offered it. Calipari wasted no time proving he was worthy this time as he led a team built around freshmen stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to the Elite Eight.

Calipari returned UK to the Final Four in 2011, won a national championship in 2012 and made another improbable run to the championship game in 2014. His 2015 team won its first 38 games before suffering a shocking loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

That early success came largely with freshmen-heavy teams featuring multiple one-and-done NBA draft picks per season, but as the importance of experience in college basketball increased, Calipari’s results at Kentucky suffered. The pandemic-altered 2020-21 season ended in a disastrous 9-16 record. He won just one more NCAA Tournament game after signing a 2019 contract extension with losses to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s and No. 14 seed Oakland included in that stretch.

Despite the recent struggles, Calipari leaves UK ranked second on the program’s all-time wins list with a 387-113 record.

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