LEXINGTON, Ky. - John Calipari agreed Tuesday to leave Memphis and the dominant program he built and take on the challenge — and riches — of returning Kentucky to college basketball glory.
Calipari will receive an eight-year, $31.65 million deal plus incentives, according to the university, making him the highest-paid coach in college basketball. The school also will pay Memphis a $200,000 buyout.
Calipari, 50, has a career record of 445-140 in 17 seasons. He chose to leave Memphis after nine seasons of success, including a record of 137-14 over the past four years.
He spent the day considering the Wildcats’ lucrative offer and calling former Kentucky coaches, including Joe B. Hall.
Hall said the informal chat centered on what it takes to survive one of college basketball’s most prestigious and most scrutinized jobs. Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie last Friday after two disappointing seasons.
The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn., first reported the hiring.
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.
The news of Calipari’s hire spread quickly across Lexington. More than 100 fans stood out in the rain at Blue Grass Airport hoping to catch a glimpse of Calipari’s arrival on a plane from Memphis. No such luck, not that it mattered to a fan base eager for a winner.
Hoping to make a big splash after Gillispie’s tenure, Kentucky went deep into its pockets to land one of the nation’s most high-profile coaches.
Calipari’s deal would eclipse the $3.5 million average salary of Florida’s Billy Donovan and dwarf 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.
Memphis had promised to match whatever Kentucky offers, but the Wildcats have one thing Memphis doesn’t: the opportunity to coach in a top-flight conference at the home of college basketball’s winningest program.
It’ll be seen as money well spent if Calipari can duplicate the success that’s followed him throughout his collegiate coaching career.
Putting the pieces together at Kentucky might not take long, though the program has plenty of question marks.
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 to return. He won over fans and made over the program at Memphis behind an electrifying style of play that has churned out a handful of NBA players, including Derrick Rose, Shawnae Williams, Dajuan Wagner and Joey Dorsey.
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