Winner, Winner – Chicken Dinner!

University of Kentucky men’s basketball fans are still rejoicing this weekend.  Their long-time coach, the one with an incredible $33 million buyout provision, just left the state and moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas.

John Calipari is now being called “Gone” Calipari by many Kentucky’s Big Blue fans.

In northwest Arkansas, Razorback Nation seems thrilled to have purchased the former basketball coach away from the University of Kentucky.  Ironically, the Pigs needed a very big check written by a wealthy chicken mogul in order to pull this all together.

How Kentucky men’s basketball fans became so spoiled

Legendary University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach Adolph Rupp led the Wildcats for an incredible 41 years from 1932-1972.  Ironically, Coach Rupp was forced into retirement in 1972 after turning 70 years of age.  That was because he reached the mandatory retirement age for state employees in Kentucky during that time.

While at Kentucky, Adolph Rupp’s teams won 82% of their games, 27 Southeastern Conference titles, four NCAA national titles and one NIT championship.  After his retirement, the school built an enormous 23,000 seat arena (named for Coach Rupp, of course) to accommodate the incredible demand for basketball tickets every season.

In Kentucky, their men’s basketball team means as much (or more) as college football does in Tuscaloosa, Alabama…or Athens, Georgia…or Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In the 50+ years since Coach Rupp retired, the Wildcats men’s basketball team has been successful but never as dominant as they had been in the past.

Subsequent coaches produced a lot of wins but not the number of national titles which Big Blue Kentucky Wildcats fans longed for.

Coaches such as Joe B. Hall (1978 championship), Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino (1996), Tubby Smith (1998), Billy Gillespie, and, most recently, John Calipari (2012) have added a total of four national titles to the Kentucky trophy case.  Kentucky basketball fans want more.

Kentucky’s love/hate relationship with Coach John Calipari

John Calipari was one of the best basketball recruiters (high school and transfer players) in the nation – even before he came to the University of Kentucky.

During his nine years at the University of Memphis, Coach Calipari was able to stock his basketball teams with some incredible talent.

John Calipari led Memphis to an incredible 61 victories in their 62 Conference USA games and no less than a Sweet Sixteen appearance during his last four years with the team.   After Kentucky fired Billy Gillespie in 2009, Coach John Calipari became the Wildcats’ coach for the next 15 years.

As he did in Memphis, Coach Cal routinely signed the top high school recruiting classes during his long tenure at Kentucky.

Unfortunately, Coach Calipari’s incredible ability to recruit McDonald’s high school All-Americans came with some downsides, too.  Most of those five-star recruits barely stayed long enough to unpack their bags in Lexington.  With Kentucky’s frequent appearances on national television, many recruits were using the college program as a one or two year training camp prior to entering the NBA draft.

Then again, Coach Calipari used the procession of blue-chip high school players to perpetually tease the Big Blue fans into believing a national title was right around the corner.  Though John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats won a national championship in 2012, many fans wondered why his teams didn’t win more.

It worked – until it didn’t

Big Blue basketball qualified for the NCAA post-season tournament 12 times in the past 15 seasons.  In addition to its 2012 national title, Kentucky’s 2015 men’s basketball team went undefeated for an entire regular season.  After winning their 38th game in succession, the Wildcats lost to Wisconsin in the March Madness national semifinals to finish the year at 38-1.

After nearly every season in John Calipari’s time at Kentucky, a parade of first or second year players left the program for the NBA draft.

The pattern had been established

Coach Calipari recruits another stellar class of high school All-Americans to come to Kentucky.   However, his youthful Kentucky teams frequently were out-played and out-coached at some point in the NCAA post-season tournament nearly every year.

Fans and alumni at the University of Kentucky became spoiled by seeing a line-up of impressive young talent but quickly tired of slipping on the same banana peel in the NCAA tournament.  Just a few weeks ago, #3 seed Kentucky lost in the first round to #14 seed Oakland University (Michigan) of the Horizon League.

Big Blue Nation basketball fans had seen enough.

At some point, the coach must accept the blame for the shortcomings of his perpetually highly touted teams.   Coach John Calipari never did, and most Kentucky fans wanted him to be fired.

The coach’s incredible contract at Kentucky included a buy-out provision which would have paid him $33 million if he was fired from his job.

Enter Arkansas

The Razorbacks recently lost their most recent men’s basketball coach, Eric Musselman.  He guided the Hogs to the NCAA Elite Eight in two consecutive years (2021 and 2022).

This year, though, Arkansas finished with its first losing record since 2010.  Somewhat surprisingly, Coach Musselman was lured away by Southern Cal after the season ended.

Arkansas was now in need of a men’s basketball coach who could generate enough excitement to fill-up the school’s 19,300 seat Bud Walton Arena – the fifth largest college basketball arena in the country.

Arkansas needed a new men’s basketball coach.  Kentucky’s current coach was looking for a new start.  But $33 million stood in the way of making this happen.  It was time for Athletics Director Hunter Yuratek to “Call the Hogs”.

Fortunately, Arkansas’s AD received a positive response from one prominent supporter.

John Tyson (chairman of nearby Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods) utilized some of his $3 billion fortune to pay any costs required to pay-off Kentucky and fund a new five-year deal to bring John Calipari to Fayetteville to coach the Razorbacks.

For the 70-year old John Tyson, his corporate brand will be more popular than ever in the states of Arkansas and Kentucky.  It was pure marketing genius to boost sales in 2024 and the corporate image for years to come.

Who wants the pressure of dealing with Kentucky’s rabid basketball fans?

Upon hearing the news about this week’s departure of Coach John Calipari, Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation celebrated.  Though the team’s loyal (and impatient) fan base believes that Kentucky is a premier coaching destination, not everyone wants the pressure which goes with the job.  Kentucky’s basketball fans are spoiled and want their team in the hunt for a national championship every season.

Who wants the job?  Not as many as Big Blue Nation might have first believed.

National champion UConn’s head coach, Dan Hurley, said, “No, thanks”.  Then, Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew just told Big Blue that he will remain in Waco.  Though many fans wanted the program to bring back former coach Rick Pitino (now at St. John’s), the coach supported the hiring of one of his former Kentucky basketball players for the job.

“I love Mark Pope and his family and he would be an unbelievable choice,” said Pitino this week.

And just like that, Brigham Young’s current coach (and former Kentucky basketball player) Mark Pope was announced today as the new men’s basketball coach for the Wildcats.

University of Kentucky Athletics Director Tommy Barnhart seemed pleased and, quite likely, very relieved.

“Mark Pope not only brings an impressive record in nine years as a head coach, but also a love of the University of Kentucky and a complete understanding of what our program means to the people of our state,said Barnhart. “As a captain on the ‘96 championship team, Mark was a beloved and respected teammate.  He fully embraces our high expectations and standards.”

Translated – Mark Pope understands that there is a short leash at Kentucky.

All’s well that ends well

Kentucky fans are much happier than they were a week ago.  Coach John Calipari is gone.  The school’s financial supporters didn’t have to pay the $33 million ransom to make Coach Cal walk the plank.  Today, the school just hired “one of their own” who understands that winning national championships is expected at the University of Kentucky.

Arkansas fans are happier than they were a week ago.  After losing their head coach to USC, a very wealthy supporter stepped-up to help the Hogs bring John Calipari to Fayetteville and raise expectations at Arkansas.

John Calipari is downright giddy about his life from just one week ago.  He escaped from the ungrateful fans at Kentucky and will still earn $7 million per year at Arkansas.  Not bad for a 65-year old coach.

Coach Mark Pope should be happier (perhaps) than he was a week ago.  He is going home to Kentucky and will try to bring more national championships to those overzealous Big Blue fans.

Yes, John Tyson’s checkbook is now at least $33 million lighter.

However, the chicken mogul is basking in the glow of fan appreciation (in both Arkansas and Kentucky).  Perhaps it will translate into higher product sales and growth of the stock price of Tyson Foods (NYSE: TSN).

Perhaps the two happiest people should be the Athletics Directors at both Kentucky and Arkansas.  I think they should celebrate by having lunch together soon at Chick-fil-A.

Gentlemen, how would you like your chicken today – grilled or fried?