Sources: Calipari on Kentucky radar

Updated: March 30, 2009, 8:05 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

Memphis coach John Calipari has taken a place on Kentucky's radar in its search to replace Billy Gillispie, multiple sources told ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil and Pat Forde.

On Friday, a source told O'Neil that Calipari "likely would not be interested" in the job.

But on Sunday, multiple sources said Calipari is indeed interested. A source also said Kentucky was gathering information on Calipari over the weekend.

According to Memphis sports information director Lamar Chance, Kentucky officials have not contacted Memphis for permission to speak to Calipari.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart says the search to replace Gillispie, who was fired Friday, will focus on finding someone who can match the passion of the school's rabid fan base.

Calipari and Memphis advanced to the Sweet 16 this season despite losing three key pieces to 2008's national runner-up squad in Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey.

The Tigers lost 102-91 to Missouri on Thursday night to end a 27-game winning streak, finishing 33-4 for their fourth straight 30-win campaign. Memphis was also the nation's only team with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament the past four years.

Allow former Wildcats coach Rick Pitino a couple of suggestions for Kentucky: John Pelphrey and Travis Ford, guys with talent and deep Kentucky roots, if not lofty credentials.

Pitino spent eight years masterfully stalking the sidelines at Kentucky, reviving a reeling program with a mix of charm, charisma and -- most of all -- success.

Beloved by some diehards even after his defection to hated Louisville, Pitino is still the yardstick by which any Kentucky coach in the near future will be measured.

It's a standard ousted coach Gillispie failed to live up to, whether on the court, in the press or out in the Bluegrass.

"For anybody, it's a big adjustment," Pitino said. "For those guys, it's not."

Ford is from Madisonville, played point guard for Pitino in the early 1990s and just led Oklahoma State to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Pelphrey, from eastern Kentucky, was a small forward for Pitino's first Wildcat teams and is the head coach at Arkansas.

Pitino doesn't doubt they love their current gigs. He also doesn't doubt they'd jump at a chance to come back home.

"I don't care where they're at," Pitino said. "They love Oklahoma State, love Arkansas, but those two guys, you cut them open, and it spells UK. That's what I would do."

Their lack of extended NCAA success, though, could be a hindrance. On paper, neither appear to be a better candidate than Gillispie was two years ago when the Wildcats hired him after a whirlwind 24-hour courtship.

Then again, having a unique feel for the rhythms of Kentucky basketball is the kind of thing you can't put on a resume.

Barnhart knows he can't afford to make another misstep at a program that hasn't been to the Final Four for more than a decade.

"We understand the challenge and importance of finding our next caretaker for this very special basketball program," he said. "We desire for Kentucky basketball to be a part of the championship picture every year; that is our goal."

Former Kentucky star turned TV analyst Mike Pratt will assist in the vetting process, spending time with the top candidates to get a feel if they can handle the pressure of leading college basketball's all-time winningest program.

Gillispie's rough tenure showcased how difficult it can be for an outsider to ingratiate himself with the thousands who pack Rupp Arena each season.

Winning more certainly would have helped, too.

Michigan State 's Tom Izzo certainly won some Kentucky fans Sunday when the Spartans dominated hated Louisville in the Midwest Regional finals of the NCAA tournament. Izzo, while allowing it'd be unwise to never say never, seems plenty happy where he's at.

The irony, of course, is that he's trying to get the Spartans into the conversation with Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina as one of college basketball's premier programs.

"When you look at Kansas, Kentucky, Carolina, Duke in general, we're not at that level yet, and that's the level I'd like to get to," Izzo said Saturday. "So I've still got a lot of work to do."

Other candidates could be Xavier's Sean Miller or Ohio State's Thad Matta, though neither can match the star power of Calipari or Izzo.

Calipari, 252-69 in nine seasons at Memphis and 445-140 overall, was named the Sports Illustrated coach of the year before the start of the NCAA tournament, the first time he received SI's award. Calipari was the Naismith coach of the year last season, joining Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to be named twice to the award since its inception in 1987.

Calipari went 193-71 in eight seasons at UMass from 1988-96, a span that included Final Four and Elite Eight appearances in his final two years.

Calipari, a graduate of Clarion State (Penn.) in 1982, also coached the NBA's New Jersey Nets from 1996-98, going 72-112 before his ouster early in the 1998-99 season.

Information from ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil, Pat Forde and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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