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Remembering 15 years of Kentucky men’s basketball: The Calipari Era

Addison Coffey
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a call during the No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 1 North Carolina mens basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Elite 8 on Sunday, March 26, 2017, at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. North Carolina won 75-73. Photo by Addison Coffey | Kentucky Kernel

After 15 seasons, hall of famer John Calipari is stepping down as head coach of Kentucky men’s basketball.

His statement was released on social media on Tuesday, April 9, after ESPN’s Pete Thamel announced on Sunday that the Arkansas men’s basketball program was finalizing a contract with Calipari.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari, left, speaks with guard Justin Edwards (1) during the No. 3 Kentucky vs. No. 14 Oakland mens basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 21, 2024, at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kentucky lost 80-76. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff (Samuel Colmar)

“This program probably needs another voice,” Calipari said in a video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

There’s no question that the past couple of seasons for Calipari have proved disappointing for a vocal Big Blue Nation and, after another first round exit in March, his separation from Kentucky came as little surprise.

But, despite the rocky road, the past 15 years have proved historic for Kentucky’s program.

In Calipari’s tenure, the Wildcats went 410-122 while claiming six SEC Tournament titles and one NCAA Tournament title.

During his time, no team during March Madness has achieved more wins (32), Final Fours (four), Elite Eights (seven) or Sweet 16s (eight).

He produced 47 NBA Draft picks, including three No. 1 overall picks in John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony-Towns.

Now in 2024, he says goodbye to Kentucky after aiding in its journey to be the winningest college men’s basketball program in history. 

Without further adieu, here’s to remembering the Calipari era:

Calipari found his way to the Bluegrass State in 2009 after being the head coach at Memphis for nine years. He replaced Billy Gillispie after his two-year stint at Kentucky.

In his first season for the Wildcats, Calipari brought with him the legendary John Wall along with DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton — a squad that did not fail to have an impactful first season for this new coach.

They went on to become the first ever men’s college basketball team to reach 2,000 wins while claiming the SEC Championship and reaching the Elite Eight. The team finished the season with a 35-3 record.

In 2010, Calipari upheld his skilled recruiting and welcomed Brandon Knight, Terrance Jones and Doron Lamb to Lexington. In the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Calipari coached the Wildcats to their first first Final Four appearance since 1998 before losing to UConn by one point 56-55.

And then came the unforgettable 2011-2012 season, featuring nine-time NBA All-Star Davis.

Davis, along with Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer would go on to become the faces that secured Calipari’s first-ever NCAA Championship.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari yells to his team on the court during the No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Wofford mens basketball game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 23, 2019, at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. Kentucky won 62-56. Photo by Jordan Prather | Kentucky Kernel (Jordan Prather)

For Kentucky fans, there was arguably no better time to be alive. A Final Four victory over in-state rival Louisville followed by the title game win over Kansas made for a year that will forever go down as one of best in program history.

Calipari coached his best record of his career that year (until breaking it with a 38-1 record in 2015), finishing the season 38-2.

And just two seasons later, he took his team right back to the NCAA Championship with James Young and Julius Randle in 2014.

UConn defeated the Wildcats in the title game 60-54, but it just made the following season’s roster even hungrier for the win.

This may be the most difficult season for BBN to talk about. After finishing the regular season with a perfect 31-0 record, another NCAA Tournament title under Calipari was a popular bet to make.

Marcus Lee, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and the Harrison twins were the A-listers to shine this year. 

March was indeed madness this season as Harrison’s buzzer beaters gave fans something to live for, but the joy all came crashing down after the Final Four loss to Wisconsin, 71-64.

After seven Wildcats departed the team for the NBA Draft at the end of the season, Calipari welcomed Isaac Humphries and Jamal Murray in 2015.

Ending that season with a 27-9 overall record, Calipari picked up another SEC Tournament title, but failed to make it the second weekend of March Madness.

2016 saw a respectable overall record of 32-6, with leading players Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo. 

This squad reeled in another SEC Tournament title and an Elite Eight appearance where it lost to North Carolina 75-73.

Enter Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington in 2017, finishing the season more or less the same as the year prior.

In this ninth year of coaching for Calipari, this pattern of top recruits who funneled Kentucky to a subpar finish in March started to become the norm.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari coaches one of his players during the No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Saint Peter’s mens basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Saint Peter’s won 85-79. Photo by Michael Clubb | Kentucky Kernel (Michael Clubb)

With next season’s stars of Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson, the team finished 30-7 with a loss in the SEC Tournament semifinals and an OT loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight.

In 2019, the continuous tease of Kentucky coming so close to making the Final Four started to exasperate fans.

Everyone believed the Wildcats were long overdue for another appearance, but little did they know the worst years of Calipari’s era were to come.

While the March wins started to decrease, Calipari’s recruiting remained steady.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic canceled the postseason in 2020, Kentucky ended the regular season 25-6 at the hands of Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks Jr. and Dontaie Allen.

After the peak of the pandemic and 10 seasons at Kentucky, assistant coach Kenny Payne departed for the head coaching position down the road from Lexington at the University of Louisville — a decision that did not result in his best showing.

Payne was fired from the Cardinals just a month ago after a 12-52 record with his teams proved insufficient for Athletic Director Josh Heird.

Welcoming Bruiser Flint as the new assistant coach at Kentucky for the 2020-21 season, the Wildcats also brought on B.J. Boston Jr., Devin Askew, Davion Mintz, Olivier Sarr, Lance Ware and Jacob Toppin to take the court.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari yells to his team during the No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky mens basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 17, 2017, at Baker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Kentucky won 79-70. Photo by Hunter Mitchell | Kentucky Kernel (Hunter Mitchell)

This year brought about the ugliest season Calipari ensured, finishing 9-16 and failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

The season’s failure was indicated early on in the year after starting off with a brutal 1-6 record — the worst start for the program since 1911.

It also marked the worst coaching year for Calipari since his first season at Massachusetts from 1988-89.

The downhill of Calipari’s career in Lexington had begun.

Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler, TyTy Washington and Kellan Grady in 2022 seemed like they were going to push their coach’s career a little bit back up the hill, but a first round exit to Saint Peter’s in March crushed that hope.

By the 2022-23 season, the success rate of Calipari’s coaching style was starting to be called into question. The NBA one-and-done freshmen no longer seemed to be able to take the Wildcats far in March.

But the hall of famer stuck to his ways and in 2022, introduced Cason Wallace, Adou Thiero and Chris Livingston.

The group did avoid a first-round upset to Providence, but fell in the following match to Kansas State 75-69.

The departure of Wallace to the draft came as no surprise, but the odd following of Chris Livingston to the NBA left a sour taste in Lexington. Not to mention the bizarre commitment of Shaedon Sharpe, who played zero minutes for Kentucky and went straight to the draft.

The desire for a championship no longer seemed like a priority for these players or the program and, if that wasn’t the priority, Calipari needed to go. 

The rollercoaster of an era finally came to an end in the 2023-24 season.

Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham, Antonio Reeves, Justin Edwards and D.J. Wagner entered this year in what was one the best recruiting classes Calipari has ever had.

There was no possibility he could fumble another year.

Yet, here we are in April of 2024 after Rupp Arena saw its most consecutive home losses this year and not a single postseason win from this team.

Everyone knows what happened next.

Kentucky men’s basketball now begins its search for a new leader to bring in a new era for the school, while Calipari heads to Fayetteville, Arkansas, in search of his new beginning as well. 

The time has come to close this chapter with appreciation for all of the highs and the lows of the past 15 years and turn the page, for a new journey is about to begin.

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Samuel Colmar, Assistant Photo Editor

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