Recruiting analyst talks John Calipari-to-Texas possibility

It’s going to be an interesting next couple of months in Lexington.

And that’s not even taking into account what happens on the basketball court.

The speculation that Kentucky Coach John Calipari could be a major target for Texas took another turn Monday, when 247Sports recruiting analyst Travis Branham posted some new rumblings on the website.

“A source has told me that Texas has already contacted Calipari through back channels,” Branham wrote. “… I do suspect that if a competitive offer is made then Cal would likely jump at it.”

Kentucky is just two days removed from its worst loss of the season — a 78-52 rout at Alabama — and the Wildcats are now 10-5 and unranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. UK started the season at No. 4 in those rankings. The Cats didn’t even get a single vote in this week’s poll, and they’ve lost all four of their games against ranked teams by double digits.

Texas parted ways with head coach Chris Beard last Thursday amid a domestic family violence charge. He had been suspended without pay since his Dec. 12 arrests.

Calipari’s name was immediately linked to the Texas opening, with the UK coach mentioned prominently on candidate lists released by ESPN, CBS Sports, The Athletic and 247Sports in the hours after Beard’s dismissal.

How likely is the Calipari-to-Texas scenario, at this stage?

“I don’t think we know the answer to that,” Branham said in an interview with the Herald-Leader on Monday afternoon. “That’s all going to be determined by Texas and what other candidates feel out. I just think it’s too early to determine the likelihood.

“Like I said in that post, I would suspect that — if Texas were to give him some sort of competitive offer — I could very well see him ending up at Texas.”

Other candidates for the Texas job that have been prominently mentioned by national analysts include Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, Baylor’s Scott Drew, Alabama’s Nate Oats, Arkansas’ Eric Musselman, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann, Kansas State’s Jerome Tang, the recently retired Jay Wright, and Royal Ivey, a former Texas player who is now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.

Calipari’s name is perhaps the biggest eye-catcher, however.

The last time Calipari was seriously linked to another job opening came in 2019, when UCLA made a determined effort to hire him as head coach. That pursuit ended with Calipari agreeing to a “lifetime contract” — in reality, a 10-year extension — to stay at Kentucky. He is currently in the fourth season of that deal, and UK owes him $53 million over the final six years of the contract, which runs through the 2028-29 season.

Kentucky has not won an NCAA Tournament game since signing Calipari to that contract. The following season’s March Madness was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (UK likely would have been in the range of a 3 seed). Then came the Cats’ 9-16 season, then last year’s loss to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the tournament, and, now, a disappointing 2022-23 campaign that is about halfway finished.

The struggles are stacking up, and Calipari’s future at Kentucky has been called into question over the past few weeks.

“Going back to the UCLA thing, I think things were even wearing a little bit thin then,” Branham said. “I actually think that was a very realistic possibility – that he could have ended up there. I think that was more of a realistic possibility than many people realized.

“But, yes, it’s just kind of been one of these slow burns, and everything’s just starting to come to a head over the past few years, starting, obviously, with that COVID year — winning nine games. And then, last year, having the worst loss in program history — Saint Peter’s. And then, this year, things really just didn’t go as planned. … And obviously when you’re at a school like Kentucky, fans get riled up and irritated, and understandably so — there’s a standard that they’re going to expect, and if it’s not met, you’re definitely going to know about the disappointment.”

When Calipari has been linked to potential job openings in the past, he has often distanced himself from such rumors through posts on social media. That did not happen this time.

On his weekly radio show Monday night, Calipari was asked by UK play-by-play announcer Tom Leach if he’d like to address the recent coaching rumors.

“I haven’t talked to anybody,” Calipari said. “My concern right now is my guys, my team, getting this right. And that kind of stuff happens. But I only want to talk about this job. I love this job. I love this group.”

Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte also said Monday that he has not had any direct contact with anyone related to Calipari and the Longhorns vacancy.

“That’s news to me,” Del Conte said. “We’ve been focused on supporting (interim coach) Rodney Terry and our athletes. I have not had any discussions with anybody. That’s way too premature, just Internet fodder.”

It’s common for schools in Texas’ current position to reach out through back channels to multiple candidates at this point in the process. Branham told the Herald-Leader that, as of Monday afternoon, he could not confirm any other head coaches that had been reached by the Longhorns, and it’s not yet clear whether Calipari would even be the No. 1 name on their list.

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Kentucky Coach John Calipari talks to his players during a game against Alabama on Saturday. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Impact on recruiting

Recent disappointment aside, Calipari is a Hall of Fame coach with an impressive resume that includes six Final Four appearances — four of them at Kentucky — and the 2012 national championship. He’s also still regarded as the game’s top recruiter, a record boasted by several No. 1 classes during his time with the Wildcats, with yet another such group signed for next season.

The state of Texas — arguably the most talent-rich area in the country — has become more of a recruiting focus for Calipari over the past several years, and Branham noted that his success getting players out of the state would be a big deal as the Longhorns conduct their search.

Beard came in two years ago with a focus on keeping the state’s best players close to home — something that obviously resonated with fans — and Calipari would offer a realistic expectation of continuing that trend.

“We all know how John is,” Branham said. “He can continue that energy that’s been built into this fan base.”

And that vocal segment of UK fans who are saying they wouldn’t be sad to see Calipari go might be thinking twice in the short term, should such a thing happen. Kentucky has wrapped up the No. 1 recruiting class for the 2023 cycle, but there’s no guarantee that any of the Cats’ five-star signees — Aaron Bradshaw, Rob Dillingham, Justin Edwards and DJ Wagner — would stay put if Calipari wasn’t here. UK might also be the favorite for five-star reclassification candidate Ian Jackson, but his future, too, would likely be tied to Calipari’s.

That first class that Calipari brought to Lexington — the one featuring players like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins ​​and Eric Bledsoe — was originally meant for Memphis, and it stands to reason that the head coach could pull off a similar switcheroo if put in a position to do so.

“I would anticipate something similar happening to what happened when he was at Memphis,” Branham said. “Almost all of them would probably follow him.”

Kentucky native Reed Sheppard — the son of two former UK stars — would seem to be the most likely to stay in the Wildcats’ class. Past that, it would be anyone’s guess.

Whatever happens, it’ll probably be at least a couple of months until the situation gets settled.

Texas won’t be making a hire before the end of the season, and the Longhorns will continue to monitor interim head coach Rodney Terry, who has kept the team on track through the process of Beard’s dismissal. Texas is No. 10 in the latest AP Top 25 poll.

Terry has been pegged by some national analysts as the early favorite to keep the job — assuming the Longhorns’ on-court success continues — but it might not be that simple.

Texas has ample resources to make whatever hire it wants. And Branham pointed out that the Longhorns won’t have to pay Beard any buyout, due to the circumstances of his departure. Calipari also has no buyout on his end, so a school that wanted to hire him away would owe UK nothing in return.

“I think Texas will go for the home-run hire,” Branham said. “Rodney Terry is going to have to prove himself to get that. Again, that’s a very coveted job. It’s a top-10 job in the entire country, when you talk about resources and pipeline — everything involved, that’s a top-10 job. And also with the momentum that Chris Beard built there in such a short span — you have to build on that.

“It went from unranked — not even making the NCAA Tournament — to a top-five team, in just its second year. So you’re not going to be complacent. You’re going to go for the home-run hire.”

This story was originally published January 9, 2023 5:01 PM.

Ben Roberts is the University of Kentucky men’s basketball beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has previously specialized in UK basketball recruiting coverage and created and maintained the Next Cats blog. He is a Franklin County native and first joined the Herald-Leader in 2006.
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