Calipari taking Kentucky job

Updated: April 1, 2009, 9:12 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

After over a day of deliberation, John Calipari is headed to Kentucky.

The coach sent a text message to ESPN.com's Andy Katz on Tuesday evening saying, "I am accepting the UK job! Go Big Blue, coach Cal."

Kentucky officials told Katz that Calipari will receive an eight-year contract for $31.65 million plus incentives. Kentucky paid Memphis a $200,000 buyout. The exact details of the contract will be revealed at Wednesday's news conference introducing the coach.

Earlier Tuesday, Calipari told a confidante that he was also receiving a $2.5 million signing bonus.

The contract is the richest in college basketball. Two sources told ESPN.com's Pat Forde that Calipari signed the Kentucky contract before he boarded a private plane to head to Lexington Tuesday evening.

"Why did he wait so long?" said former Calipari assistant Bruiser Flint, the head coach at Drexel. "He said he didn't have to take the job. He's 50 years old. He felt good at Memphis. It was a good place for him. But at the end of the day, it's Kentucky."

The school has scheduled a Wednesday news conference at 9:30 a.m. ET on campus to announce its new basketball coach (live on ESPN, ESPNEWS).

The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn., first reported the hiring, and ESPN's Dick Vitale confirmed it.

"It was a wild and hectic day and I really and truly believe that John didn't decide until right at the end, late this afternoon," Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson told Katz Tuesday night. "We talked throughout the day. We've got a great thing going here. So I'm disappointed."

Johnson said he and Calipari had an emotional meeting. Johnson said he asked Calipari how much money he wanted to stay at Memphis and his reply was, "You don't have to give me anymore. It's Kentucky."

Johnson said that Calipari was wrestling with the idea that "we have a spectacular team coming in here next season."

According to Johnson, Calipari told the team that the returning players need to stay at Memphis. Johnson said he would advice them to do the same, but he knows they will wait for the next head coach to be named. Players likely wouldn't leave school until after the spring semester anyway, so they could be eligible.

"They're young and they can be very emotional," Johnson said. "They'll calm down."

Tyreke Evans' older brother and guardian, Reggie Evans, told Katz on Tuesday night that the Memphis freshman point guard hasn't declared for the NBA draft and won't make up his mind for weeks. The deadline to declare is April 30.

"He hasn't declared," Reggie Evans said. "Everyone assumed because Cal [Calipari] is leaving that he's going. He's going to finish the semester in May and we're going to decide this as a family before the deadline."

Foxsports.com reported on Tuesday that Tyreke Evans was indeed going to leave Memphis and head to the draft.

Reggie Evans said his "job" is to make sure Tyreke is a top-10 pick before advising him to declare for the draft.

"Once I get some positive feedback to my liking, then if he has a chance to be a lottery pick from one to 10 then we can decide," Reggie Evans said. "We're going to sit down in a week or two with 'Reke. If he's not top 10 then the coach doesn't mean a thing."

Reggie Evans said Tyreke would consider going back to Memphis, regardless of the coach, if he isn't a high draft pick.

Meanwhile, Johnson said the Wildcats' high-profile recruiting class likely won't come to Memphis.

"He isn't going to come now," Johnson said, in obvious reference to ESPN 100 top recruit Xavier Henry.

Johnson isn't allowed to comment on specific commitments, but he said the other committed player wouldn't come to Memphis either, referencing top-five player DeMarcus Cousins. Johnson said he didn't anticipate another top-five player the Tigers were pursuing would come, either. Memphis had been interested in point guard John Wall, who was deciding among Duke and Memphis among others. He may now look at Kentucky, like Cousins.

Johnson said he told Calipari that he wished him nothing but the best.

"I think it will be a good match," Johnson said of Calipari and Kentucky. "This is a good job, too. I told him that he left this a better job with the FedEx Forum and the practice facility. We're not BCS, but we surely look like one."

Johnson had interest in Mike Anderson three years ago when Calipari nearly left for NC State. But Anderson is off limits now that he signed a new seven-year deal Tuesday to stay at Missouri. Johnson wouldn't reveal any other specific names on his radar, but a source close to Johnson said that Xavier's Sean Miller is atop his list and USC's Tim Floyd is also a possibility. Miller and Calipari are good friends.

Memphis has scheduled a news conference for noon Wednesday where Johnson will discuss the future of the Memphis basketball program.

Meanwhile, Kentucky will have an interesting scholarship situation. The Wildcats lose only one player off this season's team in senior Jared Carter, but they signed three players. Calipari is expected to give the roster an overhaul so the newcomers in this recruiting class can possibly be added for the maximum 13 scholarship players.

Calipari spent Tuesday 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, most scrutinized and most lucrative jobs. Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie last Friday after two disappointing seasons.

Tigers walk-on Preston Laird said Calipari met with the team Tuesday afternoon, first as a group and then with individual players, including Laird. 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.

But the guard said Calipari wasn't very specific.

"He can't say that he's taking it, but he said he was probably going to sign the contract," Laird told a reporter.

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 never made more than $2 million a season during his remarkably successful eight-year run at the school. 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.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireJohn Calipari has decided to leave Memphis to jump-start Kentucky's program.

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.

He put together turnarounds at Massachusetts and Memphis, winning over 440 games in 17 seasons and leading both schools to a Final Four.

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 -- named a second-team All-American on Monday -- 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, Shawne Williams, DaJuan Wagner and Joey Dorsey.

Calipari's ability to lure some of the nation's best high school players -- regardless of how long they plan on sticking around -- has made him an attractive candidate for years.

He's been able to fight off temptation for nearly a decade, but the chance to make over one of college basketball's elite programs proved to be too much.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart stressed the need to find a coach who can handle everything that comes along with coaching the Wildcats. Calipari has never met a camera he didn't like and certainly doesn't lack confidence: two things Gillispie struggled with during his tenure.

Calipari became the focus after Donovan took his name out of the running.

Kentucky received permission to speak to Calipari on Monday, less than 72 hours after Gillispie was fired. Sensing the need to make a home-run hire after the Gillispie debacle, Calipari certainly has the resume and the charm to sate a rabid fan base.

But he also has some baggage. He led Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996 only to have the school vacate the honor when star Marcus Camby admitted to receiving gifts from a sports agent.

Though Calipari has never been found of wrongdoing by the NCAA, he's been unable to shed the Camby mess from his reputation and his hire could raise some eyebrows from fans still sensitive over the recruiting violations during the Eddie Sutton era 20 years ago that nearly wrecked the program.

Pitino swooped in to save Kentucky after Sutton left, taking the Wildcats to three Final Fours and a national title in eight years on the sideline.

Neither Gillispie or Smith have been able to duplicate that success, but neither had the charisma or swagger of Calipari, who now finds himself working an hour east of Pitino.

The two have a long history dating back to when Pitino recommended Calipari for the head coaching job at UMass in 1988. Pitino's Kentucky team beat Calipari's UMass squad in the '96 Final Four and the two have had a testy -- at least on the floor -- relationship ever since.

The rivalry really began when Pitino took over at Louisville in 2001 as the Cardinals and the Tigers fought with Cincinnati and Marquette for C-USA supremacy. Those three programs left for the Big East in 2005, and Memphis has dominated the conference ever since.

Memphis hasn't lost a C-USA game since 2006, and the Tigers are the only program in the country to receive either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in each of the last four years.

Despite their perceived differences, Pitino has little doubt Calipari will be a great fit at Kentucky.

"He's done a great job at UMass. He's done a great job at Memphis and he would do a great job at Kentucky if that's their pick," Pitino said Tuesday.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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