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John Calipari Gets Out Ahead Of The Pitchforks And Torches

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 21: Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats walks off the court after losing to the Oakland Golden Grizzlies during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PPG PAINTS Arena on March 21, 2024 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Oakland Golden Grizzlies won, 80-76. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Two years ago, John Calipari quitting his job at the University of Kentucky to take a similar gig at the University of Arkansas would have garnered a level of "Is it April 1?" skepticism, and that's only if it could be imagined at all. Kentucky has been at the center of all things college basketball for decades, the job you take when you've got a brilliant résumé and they get fed up with their own guy.

It never happens the other way. Nobody quits Kentucky for another gig, let alone a gig in the same conference. Let alone Arkansas. It races past unthinkable and into "You have to be shitting me."

Except that it isn't, doesn't, and it just happened. Calipari pointed his nose toward the faint aroma of smoke from the increasingly less gruntled Kentucky fan base and decided not to wait for smoke's traditional partner—fire—to arrive. Fueled by the money from the billionaire who runs the Tyson Foods empire, he has I-40'd his ass to Fayetteville rather than take a promise from UK that he would be returning for next season, and no matter what excuses he offers at his almost-certainly tedious presser, the core truth will still boil down to this: There is no job so big that it can't be escaped, because at these prices, every job is about the same.

That it is happening on the day of the national championship tells you a lot about what powers the news in the men's game these days, and it isn't the game. Whatever Caitlin Clark and Dawn Staley didn't steal, Calipari just did, and whether UConn runs the table or not, it will not be noticed except as the lead paragraph in "Elsewhere in basketball this week."

Indeed, it's been hard times for men's college basketball, relatively speaking. The women's game has stolen the stage that nobody ever thought was in danger, and more to the point, college football has dismantled the structure of everything around it in its move to become NFL Lite, an inside job with dynamite chasers. This is almost surely the least anticipated men's final in decades, and that's even with UConn trying to repeat as champion and establish itself as not only the best UConn team ever but one of the best programs ever.

But Calipari's departure just ahead of the angry villagers of Lexington is the development that will endure because it is acknowledgement that demanding fan bases don't have to go as far as they used to to become an enduring pain in the ass, that NIL money is more influential than freshmen, and that 65-year-olds often have a hard time adjusting to radically changing conditions, even 65-year-olds with Calipari's capacity for talking his way out of problems.

Calipari left Kentucky because he could, which is to say because Eric Musselman left Arkansas for USC, because Andy Enfield left for SMU, because Rob Lanier left for unemployment. That's not the weird part, though; there are about 40 coaching changes every year because one vacancy leads to others. The weird part is that Calipari wasn't Arkansas's first choice. His $33 million buyout from Kentucky was believed to be prohibitive enough to save his job for at least another year, but he decided to get out ahead of the suck, even if it means a slightly smaller contract with more plentiful incentives. And he decided to get out on the biggest day of the college basketball calendar—or at least it was until this year, when the biggest day on the calendar was yesterday. 

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