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All signs point to Calipari as the next Kentucky coach, but it’s not a done deal

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McClatchy Tribune
March 31, 2009
— All indications suggest that University of Memphis Coach John Calipari is Kentucky’s choice to lead its basketball program.

Kentucky president Lee Todd declined to confirm that Calipari was the leading candidate on Monday. But when asked about the process, Todd said, “It’s going to move quickly.”


As reporters staked out his office, Calipari remained in Memphis, meeting with his players and presumably pondering his options.


Randy Fishman, a University of Memphis athletic board member, said Calipari had said openly from the beginning of his tenure that one of the few jobs that could ever grab his attention was Kentucky’s.


“I would be surprised if he weren’t the next University of Kentucky coach,” said Fishman, a Memphis lawyer. “It’s a storied program at the University of Kentucky.”


Fishman said he hadn’t talked to Calipari on Monday but sensed that the coach would relish the challenge of helping to return UK to its glory days.


Memphis athletics director R.C. Johnson confirmed that he had given his Kentucky counterpart, Mitch Barnhart, permission to talk with Calipari about replacing Billy Gillispie. Such permission usually is one of the final steps in the hiring process.


“However, I will tell you that we are elated with the job John has done as our head coach and we will do everything in our power to retain his services at Memphis,” Johnson said in a statement.


Potential stumbling blocks remained. Although anonymous sources abounded, no one had any seer saying UK and Calipari agreed on a salary. Figures being tossed around include $40 million over six years or $35 million over eight years.


At Memphis, Calipari signed a new contract last year that would pay him $3.35 million annually if he stayed through the 2012-13 season.


Another potential stumbling block is all the younger players who committed to UK after being offered scholarships by Gillispie, who was fired on Friday after two seasons. When those players, as young as eighth-grader Michael Avery, agreed to scholarship offers, it drew criticism based, in part, on UK reneging on the commitments. In response to that public-relations setback, UK president Todd gave assurances that those commitments would be honored.


Would Calipari take the job knowing he was obligated to give scholarships to those players? It’s not a small number: Dakotah Euton, Vinny Zollo, KC Ross-Miller, Dominique Ferguson and Avery. Of the group, only Ferguson is considered a top-level prospect.


On Monday, Todd backed off earlier comments about honoring those commitments.


“I’ve got to go through that,” the UK president said. “That’s something I have thought about and have some concern with.”


After noting that the younger prospects are free to pursue other options, Todd said, “I’ll be talking to the next candidates about their reaction to some of that early (recruiting).”


Also unknown is Calipari’s feelings about this year’s signees: big man Daniel Orton, wing Jon Hood, point guard G.J. Vilarino and junior college guard Konner Tucker.


As reports fired back and forth among Lexington, Memphis and national sports media, the team without a coach gathered. The players’ sense of humor remained intact.


Asked after the gathering if the team had a new coach, DeAndre Liggins said, “Yeah, Billy Gillispie.”


However, Ramon Harris said the meeting was not about a new coach.


ESPN college basketball commentator Dick Vitale spoke enthusiastically about the prospects of Calipari becoming Kentucky’s coach.


“He would be a grand slam,” Vitale said, “an absolute grand slam. He brings the whole package, the (Rick) Pitino package.”


Under Pitino in the 1990s, Kentucky enjoyed one of the finest stretches of basketball for a program used to success. The Cats went to three Final Fours in a five-year period, winning the national championship in 1996.


UK officials have made it clear that they were targeting someone who can handle all aspects of college coaching: working with players, recruiting, public relations and, in Kentucky’s case, being an ambassador for the program, university and commonwealth.


After noting the success Calipari had at Massachusetts (a win-loss record of 193-71) and Memphis (252-69), Vitale marveled at the winning that Calipari could do with Kentucky’s resources.


“He would be an incredible superstar,” Vitale said.



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