John Calipari wants Rick Pitino to return to Rupp Arena
When John Calipari became University of Kentucky basketball coach, he asked one of his predecessors a pointed question: How long could a coach expect to endure and prosper in such a high-pressured job? Joe B. Hall, who lasted 13 seasons as UK’s coach, told Calipari that it was a 10-year job.
Ten seasons later came Thursday’s announcement that Calipari and UK had agreed to a new 10-year contract.
That prompted an obvious question: Can Calipari be Kentucky’s basketball coach for 20 years?
“Well, he’s a very active young man,” Hall said Friday. “I think he’ll last another 10. Or maybe even beyond that if he wishes. I don’t think there’s any doubt if he can be very effective for 10 more (seasons), if that’s what he chooses to do.”
Reaction to Calipari’s new 10-year, $86 million contract suggested it is an ideal match of coach and program. ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a friend of Calipari’s for decades, likened it to a happy marriage.
“Kentucky fans want to be able to love their coach, and John gives them a lot of reasons to do that,” Fraschilla said. “And John does not mind being appreciated and loved.
“This has been a good marriage from the start. And I don’t see it getting any worse.”
In Calipari’s first 10 seasons as coach, Kentucky has won a national championship, advanced to three other Final Fours and won more games than any other Division I program. Fraschilla also likened Kentucky basketball under Calipari’s leadership to the standard for college football excellence. A contract extension was a “no-brainer” for UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart.
“If you’re Alabama and you can get Nick Saban locked up, or you’re Kentucky and you can get John Calipari locked up as long as he wants to coach, there’s a good chance he’s going to continue to have the same type of success,” Fraschilla said.
Gary Parrish, a sportswriter who covered Calipari’s teams at Memphis, echoed the sentiment. “John Calipari is to Kentucky what Nick Saban is to Alabama,” he said. “I honestly don’t think you could pay him too much.”
Parrish conceded that Calipari’s compensation is attention-getting: $8 million in each of the next two seasons, then $8.5 million the next four seasons, then capping out at $9 million for the final four seasons.
“I know it seems excessive to some,” Parrish said. “But the truth is I think you can reasonably argue he’s worth every penny, and probably more.”
Jim Host, whose business acumen led to a lifetime achievement award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, said the $86 million payout made business sense as an investment.
“It’s a great move regardless of the money being paid,” Host said. “It’s being returned in so many other ways. It magnifies the amount of revenue the university gets back in terms of television appearances, NCAA appearances and the recruiting advantage it gives Kentucky having a long-term contract.”
The contract, which extends through the 2028-29 season, blunts rival recruiters questioning how long Calipari will remain as UK coach, Host said.
But will Calipari continue as Kentucky that long? He would turn 70 in February of the final season of the contract.
While Calipari has hinted at not wanting to coach too long, Parrish pointed out that at age 68 Roy Williams signed a new 10-year contract as North Carolina’s coach. And Mike Krzyzewski, who is 72, has two years remaining on his current deal.
“So I don’t think there’s anything crazy about thinking John Calipari can still be as effective as he is right now deep into his 60s, and maybe into his 70s,” Parrish said.
Joe DeGregorio, who coached Calipari at Clarion State, also saw such longevity as possible. “If John stays in shape and gets rid of that little pot belly he’s got,” DeGregorio said playfully.
But will Calipari want to be Kentucky’s coach that long? The new contract allows him to step away and continue working for UK as a “Special AD Assistant” after six seasons.
Money aside, Fraschilla cited “the simple fact that John has worked hard his entire career to the point he’s coach at the University of Kentucky, arguably the greatest basketball program of the last 100 years. There’s no reason for him to leave. He’s got everything in place to do what he’s wanted to do since he was 16 years old.”
The new contract is the seventh Calipari has had in 10 years with Kentucky. It’s the fourth new contract in the last six years. Although the new deal has been called a “lifetime contract,” should UK fans expect more upgrades in the next few years?
“Yes,” Fraschilla said. “As long as they’re ripping up Nick Saban’s contract every couple years, they’re going to rip up John’s, too.”