Holy Cal! New Arkansas basketball coach cheered where he was once jeered | Arkansas Democrat Gazette (2024)

FAYETTEVILLE — Rarely, if ever, has a University of Arkansas basketball crowd at Walton Arena been louder than it was on Jan. 18, 2020.

Arkansas was playing No. 10 Kentucky and Wildcats Coach John Calipari drew two technical fouls — and an automatic ejection — when he argued with officials at the 8:19 mark of the second half about EJ Montgomery being called for an illegal screen.

The sellout crowd roared as Calipari walked off the floor and headed for the visiting locker room with the game tied 44-44.

Arkansas fans had the exact opposite reaction to Calipari’s appearance at Walton Arena on Wednesday night.

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Calipari, 65, was introduced publicly as the Razorbacks’ new men’s basketball coach with a crowd estimated at 7,000 in attendance.

This time Calipari was loudly cheered when he walked onto the court, where a stage was set up for him to talk with Chuck Barrett, the radio play-by-play voice for the Razorbacks’ basketball and football games.

Dave Van Horn, Arkansas’ long-time baseball coach who yelled at Calipari and waved good-bye to him when he was ejected four seasons ago, was among the dignitaries sitting in the front row for Wednesday night’s event.

“I have never gotten that kind of greeting in this building,” Calipari said to the fans. “As a matter of fact, you were probably in the building when they threw me out.”

Calipari, who as Kentucky’s coach was 13-7 against Arkansas, reminded the crowd Wednesday the Wildcats won the game 73-66 with assistant coach Kenny Payne taking over as head coach.

“But when I walked out, you guys were throwing stuff at me then,” Calipari said. “There weren’t any cheers.”

Calipari’s comments to Barrett drew numerous loud cheers and sometimes laughs, such as when he said former Arkansas All-Southwest Conference Joe Kleine — among several former Razorbacks in attendance — got him fired as coach of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets after Kleine was traded to the Nets from the Los Angeles Lakers.

“No, I could not ever envision that,” Calipari said later when he met with members of the media and was asked about being the coach at Arkansas. “It’s a good feeling to be honest with you.”

Van Horn was among the coaches of Arkansas’ various sports who shook hands with Calipari after he was done addressing the fans.

“I’m excited he’s here,” Van Horn said.

Calipari is replacing Eric Musselman, the Razorbacks’ coach the previous five seasons who resigned last Thursday to become Southern Cal’s coach.

“Great hire by Hunter,” Musselman said in a text message to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, referring to Razorbacks Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek. “Coach Cal will do amazing things at Arkansas.”

Calipari, who had a 410-123 record at Kentucky with four Final Four appearances highlighted by the 2012 national championship, said a week earlier he had no idea he’d be the Razorbacks’ coach.

At the request of John Tyson, the chairman of Springdale-based Tyson Foods and a long-time Calipari friend, Calipari met with Yurachek in Phoenix, where this year’s Final Four was held.

Yurachek was there for a College Football Playoff committee meeting and Calipari was attending the basketball coaches convention.

When Calipari mentioned Tyson, the fans gave him a standing ovation. After sustained applause, a smiling Tyson stood up and waved his cap.

“John Tyson, he said, ‘You need to talk to my AD while you’re in Phoenix. He’s in Phoenix,’ ” Calipari said. “What? Well, tell him to call me and I’ll meet him tomorrow. You want me to talk about candidates? I didn’t even know [what Yurachek wanted to talk about].”

Calipari said he and Yurachek met for about 90 minutes. Initially they talked about other possible coaches for Arkansas to hire.

Then Yurachek asked if Calipari was interested in the job.

“He can’t say ‘no’ until I ask him the question to begin with right?” Yurachek said when he and Calipari met with members of the media. “I mean, he spent 15 to 20 minutes bragging about how great of a job this was.

“So, if it’s so great of a job, why don’t you want it? And he kind of sat back in his chair a little bit and I think started to think about that.

“So I’m sitting in the presence of a Hall of Fame coach talking about other coaches for my job and he’s telling me how great a job this is. I’m not doing my job if I don’t ask him if he’s interested, right?”

Calipari was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

“Part of the time we talked about other people,” Calipari said. “Then he said, ‘I know that you think this is a great job. Why not you?’ Why not me? ‘Yeah, why not you?’ ”

Calipari, a devout Catholic, said he spoke with a priest about Yurachek’s job offer.

“I said to him, ‘Father, I’ve got to decide what I’m going to do here. One is Arkansas, the other is Kentucky,’ ” Calipari said. “He told me, ‘Go for an hour walk and have it in your mind you’re the Arkansas coach. And then on the way back, have it in your mind you’re the Kentucky coach, and you’ll see what moves your heart and what you want to do.’

“And I did that. I’ll be honest, when I thought about coming here and building this program and making it something special, it got me excited.”

Of the eight Razorbacks with remaining eligibility from this season’s team, seven have entered the transfer portal and Trevon Brazile said he’s entering the NBA Draft.

So Calipari is taking over a team where the only player still on the roster is Lawson Blake, a walk-on forward from Fayetteville, but Calipari said he met with three players.

Calipari didn’t name them, but an Arkansas official confirmed that Blake, Davonte Davis and Baye Fall were in the arena Wednesday.

“I can’t tell you that,” Calipari said with a laugh when asked his plan for replenishing Arkansas’ roster. “I’d be telling everybody else that.

“Look, there’s going to be enough kids that would want to play here for us. That will be fine. I really believe that.”

Asked about his coaching staff, Calipari said, “That’s one one of the first things I’ve got to get done” without offering any specifics.

Calipari stressed he felt badly that news he was in serious talks to take the Arkansas job broke Sunday — the day before Connecticut beat Purdue 75-60 in the national championship game.

“I just want everybody here to know, I didn’t want anything out until after the national championship game, that we were even talking,” Calipari said. “Because I didn’t think it was fair to those two teams and those coaches, those programs.

“Somebody here leaked it out, though. Hunter and me, we didn’t speak about it, because it wasn’t fair for those teams.”

Yurachek said he talked to eight to 10 coaches about the Arkansas job.

“I’m very thorough in that search process,” said Yurachek, who hired Musselman to replace Mike Anderson in 2019. “It’s a very tight, closed search process.

“But I don’t just zero in on one person. I didn’t know for sure that he was going to take the job, so I had to keep my search ongoing while he was taking into consideration the opportunity that was in front of [Calipari].

“Here’s what I want to be clear about — in spite of reports, there was only one person offered this job, and he’s sitting right next to me.

“I think it’s interesting his name never got out during the process, because he wanted this job in the end. He wasn’t looking for something else at his institution that he was in.”

Calipari said it was Monday night when he was sure he was going to be the next Arkansas coach, but that he felt good about it on Sunday.

“I think Monday night was when it was done,” Calipari said. “But it was probably 11 o’clock at night or later.

“Can you imagine that it happened in three or four days?”

A group of fans were at Drake Field to greet Calipari when the plane carrying he and his wife, Ellen, and son, Brad, from Lexington, Ky., landed in Fayetteville.

“That [introductory] press conference, I’d never seen anything like it, that right there was for me,” Calipari said of the Walton Arena crowd. “We got off the plane. I was looking for [United States President] Joe Biden. I’m like, ‘What is going on here?’ ”

What was going on Wednesday was Calipari being introduced to Arkansas fans as their new coach — and there were only cheers to be heard.

Holy Cal! New Arkansas basketball coach cheered where he was once jeered | Arkansas Democrat Gazette (2024)
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