LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari told the Kentucky faithful that he is "humbled and excited" to lead such a "storied program" Wednesday when he was introduced as the Wildcats' basketball coach.
And though Calipari cautioned the Kentucky faithful that he was not the "grand poobah" or the "emperor", he received a king's ransom to leave Memphis.
Before the press conference Kentucky's athletics board approved an eight-year, $31.65 million contract that will make Calipari the highest paid coach in the nation. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart defended the salary, saying that the university paid a premium price to get their guy, and that Calipari "can flat out coach."
"I'm a regular guy, folks," Calipari said. "I do not walk on water; I do not have a magic wand."
He might need to find a way. Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie last Friday after the went 40-27 and the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament.
Calipari, 50, knows what he is getting into. He said before he made his decision, he reached out to several former Kentucky coaches.
"I talked to coach (Joe B.) Hall. I talked to Tubby Smith. I talked to Eddie Sutton. And I talked to Rick Pitino about this job. And ... none of those coaches would trade their time here for anything in the world.
"This is pretty heady stuff for me."
Calipari is 445-140 in 17 seasons, leading both Memphis and Massachusetts to the Final Four. He said he has long dreamed of coaching college basketball's winningest program.
"This was a dream I've had since we brought our team down here," Calipari said. "I believe it was 1992, we had won the Alaskan Shootout, came down here to play and I could not believe the environment. At that point I said — 'I would love to coach there some day.'"
That day has come and he has Calipari has work to do. The Wildcats have not been in the Final Four the past 11 seasons. And Calipari cautioned Kentucky's fan base not to expect too much too soon, as he had informed Barnhart and university president Lee Todd.
"I told Dr. Todd and Mitch, if you want something to happen in a year, do not hire me," Calipari said. "That's now how I do things."
Barnhart said after firing Gillispie that he wanted to hire a coach that embraced what the Kentucky job meant, on and off the court. Calipari sounded like he understood what they meant.
"Our goals will be to make the entire commonwealth proud of this team, proud of their program, proud of their team by our work on the court and our integrity off the court," he said.
Calipari's decision to take the job didn't come easy. He spent more than a day mulling Kentucky's lucrative offer while reporters camped outside his home.
"This decision was extremely hard," Calipari said. "It wasn't coming here, this was easy. It was leaving Memphis. The support that my family and I received over the years there ... to walk away from that was very difficult."
Calipari's deal eclipses the $3.5 million average salary of Florida's Billy Donovan and dwarfs those of Calipari's predecessors Pitino, Smith and Gillispie.
Pitino, now the coach at rival Louisville, never made more than $2 million a season during his remarkably successful eight-year run at Kentucky. Smith's compensation neared $2.1 million at the end of his decade with the program and Gillispie received a base salary of $2.3 million with another $750,000 available in incentives.
The salary nearly triples the $1.6 million salary of Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks, a rarity in a conference where football reigns.
Calipari has a reputation as one of the nation's best recruiters, and it's possible some of his latest recruits will follow him to Lexington. Still, the cardboard is hardly bare at Kentucky.
The Wildcats went 22-14 this year, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 despite having two of the SEC's best players in guard Jodie Meeks and forward Patrick Patterson.
Patterson said after the season he'd likely return for his junior year, while Meeks — a second-team All-American — was going to take his time on a decision.
Hiring Calipari might be all the incentive they need.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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