LEXINGTON, Ky. – The University of Memphis has given Kentucky permission to speak to coach John Calipari about the Wildcats’ head coaching position.
Athletic director R.C. Johnson said in a statement Monday that Calipari could meet with Kentucky representatives, but stressed Memphis will do whatever it can to retain the coach.
Calipari did not immediately return a text message from The Associated Press. Several Memphis players did not respond to e-mail messages left by the AP.
Kentucky spokesman DeWayne Peevy would not confirm or deny an ESPN report that Wildcats officials had already met with Calipari and were prepared to offer him the job. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart did not respond to AP requests for comment.
The school fired Billy Gillispie Friday after two seasons.
The Commercial Appeal newspaper reported on its Web site that Calipari met with his players Monday morning.
Calipari just concluded his ninth season at Memphis and has a 137-14 record over the past four seasons in which the Tigers were the only team to earn either a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. He guided Memphis to a national runner-up finish last season, and the Tigers were ousted in the West Regional semifinal on Thursday night.
He currently has the top-rated recruiting class in the country headed to Memphis, but his latest recruit 6-foot-10 DeMarcus Cousins committed verbally within the past month and could follow Calipari to Kentucky if the coach leaves.
Landing Calipari won’t be cheap. He has four years left on his contract paying him $2.35 million annually. He also has an annuity averaging $1 million over the deal through 2013.
Throw in whatever settlement Kentucky negotiates with Gillispie, the Wildcats could have near $10 million invested in the head coach of its basketball program next year.
That doesn’t matter to one of college basketball’s most ardent fan bases, which seemed to electrified by the possibility of getting Calipari. A Facebook group called “Bring John Calipari to UK” had swelled to more than 9,000 members as of Monday afternoon while a popular Kentucky message board had over 15,000 people on it during the lunch hour.
Barnhart stressed the need for finding a coach who can embrace all the things that come with leading college basketball’s winningest program. Gillispie went just 40-27 in two seasons and seemed reluctant with the celebrity that came with the job.
Calipari, never one to shy away from a camera, would seem to have the charisma to match Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was named the Wildcats coach 20 years ago, winning a national championship in eight seasons at Kentucky.
Pitino and Calipari used to spar when the Cardinals battled the Tigers in Conference USA. Having two of the nation’s most high-profile coaches 70 miles apart could add another layer to one of the country’s most bitter rivalries.
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report
Will Graves/The Associated Press