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Calipari officially introduced as Arkansas head coach


Arkansas’ splash hire of John Calipari away from Kentucky as the Razorbacks’ 14th basketball coach still feels a bit like a fever dream the morning after his introductory coronation Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena that was attended by several thousand delighted Razorback fans.

Who would ever have dreamed Calipari, the longtime coaching villain to the Razorbacks dating back to the 1994-95 season when he was a young hotshot coach at UMass, would ever reign supreme over the state’s beloved hoops program?

Even though Razorback fans have known since Sunday evening when word of the imminent hire began to spread around the state and nation after Little Rock tele-journalist Wess Moore’s initial scoop that a deal between Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek and Calipari was all but completed, it still seems a bit surreal.

Calipari’s history against Razorback basketball is interesting.

His UMass squad trounced Arkansas, 105-80, in the first game after the Hogs’ 1994 national championship in the Tip-Off Classic to open the ‘94-95 season.

Two days later, the Hogs bounced back to beat Georgetown and Allen Iverson in the Martin Luther King Classic in Memphis, but Calipari oddly reminded Razorback fans of that game twice on Wednesday — first in an interview with Quinn Grovey and Matt Zimmerman on Hogs Plus and later in an interview with Chuck Barrett, the Voice of the Razorbacks.

It seemed like an odd time for Calipari to be pulling out old receipts on the program that just hired him.

Calipari even said he mentioned that game to Nolan Richardson on Wednesday during a phone call. Richardson was, of course, the Hogs’ coach during that game.

The man’s rightfully proud of his track record as one of the most successful coaches in college hoops. His Memphis squads played the Hogs, too, until he opted to schedule “national” opponents rather than renewing the series with a “regional” program like Arkansas.

Evidently his appreciation for the Razorback program grew during his 15 seasons at Kentucky, with the Hogs and Wildcats playing at least once a season during that period. He called the Razorback program one of college basketball’s blue bloods, just like Kentucky.

Calipari even jabbed at the Walton Arena crowd, bringing up the fact that he was tossed from the 2023 Arkansas-Kentucky game at Walton Arena with his Wildcats behind by 10, but reminding that his team came back to win the game.

All of that was probably just good-natured banter, and most of it likely mentioned only to note how rabidly Razorback fans support their team.

However, Calipari would be wise to tread softly when mentioning his considerable accomplishments at Kentucky, Memphis, and UMass in front of Hog fans. They know he’s a great coach, and while Razorback fans whole-heartedly love and support the Hogs, they do have a bit of a “little brother” complex baked into their psyche.

When Danny Ford coached the Razorback football team from 1993-97, he often drew parallels to his time as a player at Alabama and to his tenure as head coach at Clemson when his Tigers dominated the ACC. It’s one of the things that irked some Hog fans about Ford. It made them feel like he’d rather be in Tuscaloosa or Clemson than Fayetteville.

That was a long time ago, but I’m not sure Hog fans have changed a great deal since then.

Otherwise, the introduction went as well as anyone could have wanted.

Calipari noted the large role his good friend John Tyson, a Springdale native, played in bringing him together with Yurachek. Without that relationship, Calipari might still be at Kentucky.

He also explained the role that a clergyman played in helping him make his mind up about the job. The priest suggested Calipari take a walk and to consider what his life would be like if he accepted the Arkansas job, and on the way back, consider what it would be like if he stayed at Kentucky.

The walk convinced him making the move to Arkansas would be the right step.

Calipari said he met with three former Razorback basketball players who have eligibility remaining, but who have entered the transfer portal. He did not say if any of them would be rejoining the team.

He has the daunting task of filling 13 roster spots. Some players could follow him from Kentucky, and no doubt he will seek help out of the transfer portal.

His contract is a five-year deal, worth $7 million a year that is packed with incentives that could earn him an additional $1.25 million a year based on post-season success. He will receive a one-time $1 million signing bonus as well as a $500,000 retention bonus each year of his contract.

Calipari is the most successful coach to ever join the Razorback program at the time of their hire. The aforementioned Ford did win a national title at Clemson prior to his stint at Arkansas, but he was fired from the job after Clemson received NCAA sanctions on his watch.

Calipari certainly knows how to build a winning program. It seems the Tyson and Stephens families along with Arkansas’ other NIL efforts will provide him with the resources needed to recruit at a high level.

However, as strong a basketball history Arkansas has, it is not on even ground with Kentucky.

What remains to be seen is if Calipari can recruit the same level of talent to Arkansas that he was able to at Kentucky.

Only time will tell, but his efforts will be well worth observing for Hog fans.

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Terry Wood is a writer with 25 years experience covering sports and entertainment. He lives in Springdale and is a lifelong sports fan, movie buff and comic-book reader.

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