Despite a small run of success in recent weeks, things don't appear great in Lexington, Kentucky. The seat has become very warm for John Calipari, coach of the University of Kentucky Wildcats. It's clear that members of Big Blue Nation are frustrated with Calipari, and frustrations were at an all-time high after getting blown out by Alabama 78-52, and then following that up by being upset by South Carolina at home 71-68. In the latest AP rankings, West Virginia, Nevada, Oral Roberts and Saint Louis all got more votes than Kentucky did. How many more votes? Well, the Wildcats received zero votes, so does it really matter?
Can't Spell Calipari Without an L
To say this season has been less than stellar for Kentucky is an understatement. The Wildcats are currently 14-7 overall and are 5-3 in SEC play. Before beating Tennessee on the road 63-56 in a major upset on Saturday, Kentucky hadn't beaten anyone good. They had no Quadrant 1 wins before beating the Vols, which is a fancy stat a committee uses to see who deserves to be in the NCAA tournament. If the season ended today, it's safe to say Kentucky would be playing for an NIT championship instead of an NCAA championship.
This is part of the problem. Kentucky hasn't made it past the first round of NCAA tournament since 2019. Granted, in one of those seasons, the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, but that's still an eternity for a blue blood program. The year college basketball resumed, Kentucky went 9-16 overall and 8-9 in conference play, and finished eighth in the conference. Last year, they made the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed and were upset by No. 15 seed St. Peter's in overtime in the first round. Kentucky is also going on eight years since reaching the Final Four, where their only loss of the 2014-15 season came in the semifinals against Wisconsin.
The lack of success recently has fans irritated, questioning whether Calipari should still head the program. There's been speculation that Calipari could be leaving Kentucky at the end of the year for a new gig. One rumor floating around the college basketball forums is that Texas has reached out to Calipari. According to Travis Branham at 247Sports, Texas has contacted Calipari through "back channels" about their new head coach opening. Texas fired coach Chris Beard on Jan. 5 after his arrest on a domestic violence charge.
This rumor, along with the frustrations about the program, led to a fan bringing a sign to the Kentucky-South Carolina game that read, "Please Go To Texas." The fan was kicked out of Rupp Arena for the sign. According to UK Athletics, nearby fans complained about the sign blocking their view and Rupp Arena policies prohibit signs that "cause any disturbances with other fans."
Infighting Threatens Kentucky's Powerhouse Status
The real kicker is, it doesn't seem that fans are the only ones frustrated with Calipari. There appears to be some problems in house as well. In a Q&A article in The Athletic discussing what's going wrong with Kentucky, Kyle Tucker suggests there's some animosity between Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart and Calipari. "For whatever reason, he and Calipari no longer have a relationship of any significance. They don't speak to each other, Barnhart attends fewer games and he hasn't been to a Kentucky basketball practice in ages." Tucker goes on to describe the situation as a "cold war" between the two.
This rift could be caused by two factors. The most likely one stems from some comments made by Calipari over the summer, in which he claimed Kentucky was a basketball school. "This is a basketball school. It's always been that. Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. I mean, they are. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win 10 games and go to bowls. At the end of the day, that makes my job easier, and it makes the job of all of us easier. But this is a basketball school. And so we need to keep moving in that direction and keep doing what we're doing."
Barnhart seemed displeased by the comments, saying he was "really hot right now" when addressing what Calipari said. It also seemed as if a pointed statement was being made toward Calipari that if there wasn't going to be support from everyone, "coaches change a lot in today's world."
Calipari's comments stemmed from his desire to build a brand-new multi-use practice facility. "Everybody should be behind this," Calipari told The Athletic. "Our administration. Look, our baseball facility might be the nicest in the country, and I'm happy about that. Our football facility, we spent $200 million. Soccer, unbelievable. Now, the track — I love it. And now, I would say, the administration should be like, we're doing this." Calipari also said he doesn't want to wait for Barnhart's approval, claiming he'll raise funds by donations from previous players. Barnhart responded that a new basketball facility is not on the horizon. "Where we are right now, it's not a project that we've put on our strategic plan."
Barnhart's hands are currently tied when it comes to Calipari. In 2019, he gave Calipari a 10-year deal worth $86 million, which many have deemed a "lifetime deal." Essentially, the contract allows Calipari to finish his career as the coach of the Wildcats. If Barnhart were to fire Calipari at the end of this season, he would still owe Calipari $39.75 million; the contract states that if Calipari is fired without cause, he's owed 75 percent of the remaining compensation, which would be $53 million. And despite what many Big Blue Nation members might think, a lack of wins is not cause to fire someone. Barnhart would owe Calipari significantly less if Calipari jumps ship for another coaching job.
It's clear tensions are high both within the program and outside. Of course, winning cures all ailments, and if the current winning streak continues, maybe bygones will be bygones. But if this season becomes another disappointment, this could be the last year Calipari is the coach at Kentucky.
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