Evaluating John Calipari's future at Kentucky and the top 5 candidates to one day replace Coach Cal
Who's Next: What will happen when the Wildcats have to replace John Calipari?
Kentucky is one of the best, if not the best, college basketball jobs in the country -- the type of job almost anybody would have to consider when approached about it. The fact that five different men have won national championships while guiding the Wildcats, combined with the school's ability to pay a successful coach more than $8 million per year, suggests it's a place where you can both flourish at the highest level of the sport and get super-wealthy while doing it.
What's not to like?
For the past nine years, John Calipari has been Kentucky's coach. He's recruited like crazy, made four Final Fours, won the 2012 national championship, been elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and positioned himself well to add a second title this season given that. At this point, odds are Calipari will coach in Lexington until he's done coaching -- and I'd be shocked if that's anytime soon. So it's extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, to project who will succeed him. But, someday, the Kentucky job will open again. And, when it does, it'll be highly sought after.
CBS Sports is running a six-part series on the half-dozen men's college basketball teams that have active Hall of Fame coaches leading their respective programs. We're examining each coach and school's situation, how and when they might leave their posts, and reasonable candidates who could succeed them. This is more than a guessing game on who's next; the series is taking a big-picture look at the unique challenge facing each of the six schools. Next up is an exploration of what awaits at Kentucky.
Timeline for Coach Cal leaving Kentucky
Calipari is only 59 years old and has previously suggested he could see himself, like fellow Hall of Famers Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, coaching into his 70s. So, again, more than likely, the UK job isn't opening for a while, perhaps even for another decade -- unless, of course, Calipari bounces to the NBA.
Once upon a time, I thought such was probable because getting fired 20 games into his third season with what was then the New Jersey Nets is Calipari's only professional failure, and I spent years assuming he'd eventually return to the NBA in an attempt to prove that, yes, he could be successful at that level too. But, more recently, I've flipped that opinion -- mostly because Calipari has basically priced himself out of the majority of NBA jobs. This season, and every season through 2024, he's scheduled to make at least $8 million annually, which is more than almost every NBA franchise pays its coach. Combine that reality with the idea that Calipari would only ever leave Kentucky for a built-to-win situation in the NBA, and the odds of him getting an offer featuring the type of job and salary that would make him jump seem low. Consequently, I think he'll ultimately retire at Kentucky.
So it's totally reasonable to assume he'll still be the Kentucky coach through 2024. After that, who knows? But, like Calipari, I could absolutely see him coaching through 2029. He will turn 70 that year. And, in this era, there's nothing unusual about Hall of Fame coaches working into their 70s.
Entering 10th season at Kentucky, 27th season overall
275-64 at Kentucky, 678-202 overall (does not include 44 games at UMass and Memphis vacated by the NCAA)
Hall of Fame induction
Top candidates to replace Coach Cal
The idea that the Kentucky job really might not open for another decade is the toughest part of trying to identify candidates to be the school's next coach. For instance, 10 years ago, Archie Miller was a 29-year-old assistant at Ohio State, Shaka Smart was a 31-year-old assistant at Florida and Brad Stevens was a 31-year-old coach at Butler still two years away from making the first of two Final Fours. My point: We don't even know who will be the stars of the coaching profession 10 years from now. Some of the names will be the same. But, undeniably, there are at least a few young assistants who are going to spend the next decade becoming successful head coaches, and perhaps they'll be reasonable candidates for big jobs by the time the Kentucky job opens. As always, we'll see. But, for now, here are some names that could make sense.
1. Billy Donovan
Currently: Coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder
Résumé: Donovan, 53, is a sure-bet future Hall of Famer thanks to a remarkable career featuring back-to-back national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2007. In 18 seasons, he guided the Gators to four Final Fours and won SEC Coach of the Year honors three different times. He's now about to start his fourth season with the Thunder. He's made the NBA Playoffs each of the past three seasons.
Why it could be him: Donovan is a former UK assistant who has been pursued by Kentucky previously -- initially when Tubby Smith left Kentucky for Minnesota in March 2007. Ultimately, he decided to stay at Florida back then. But if the timing worked, and his NBA career stalled or slipped, it's not hard to envision Donovan returning to college. And keep this in mind: Kentucky is one of the few places that could give Donovan a pay raise to leave the NBA.
Why it wouldn't be him: The truth about being an NBA coach is that, if you're in a good situation, it's much easier than being a college coach. There's no recruiting, no taking calls from grassroots coaches, no worrying about academics, no catering to boosters. An NBA coach can disappear for weeks at a time in the off-season; a college coach can't. So if Donovan continues to win enough to remain in the NBA, it's possible he might just prefer the quality of life professional basketball provides.
2. Chris Holtmann
Currently: Coach at Ohio State
Résumé: Holtmann, 46, has been tremendous since taking over the Butler program prior to the 2014-15 season. He led the Bulldogs to three straight NCAA Tournaments, advanced in the bracket each time, then accepted Ohio State's offer to replace Thad Matta in June 2017. His Buckeyes were picked 11th in the preseason Big Ten poll last season but finished tied for second in the league with a 15-3 record.
Why it could be him: Ultimately, Kentucky is likely to try to replace Calipari by hiring the best coach available regardless of ties to the program or region, and Holtmann could very well be that when the time comes. But it's also worth noting he does have ties to the region. Holtmann grew up 12 miles from Lexington. So he understands the program and, on some level, has probably always dreamt of leading it.
Why it wouldn't be him: The only way Holtmann would be considered for the Kentucky job is if he has things rolling at Ohio State. And if he has things rolling at Ohio State, rather than try to replace a Hall of Famer, he might opt to pass on messing with happiness and just keep things rolling at Ohio State.
3. Shaka Smart
Currently: Coach at Texas
Résumé: Smart, 41, has coached in seven of the past eight NCAA Tournaments -- first at VCU, more recently at Texas. He famously led the Rams to the 2011 Final Four and has established himself as a high-level recruiter at UT. The Longhorns' freshman class is ranked eighth nationally, according to 247Sports.
Why it could be him: If Smart continues to recruit well at Texas, and eventually wins big at Texas, he would be an obvious candidate for Kentucky or any other big job. And he'd have to seriously consider an offer from UK because A) it's Kentucky, and B) the athletic director who hired him at Texas is no longer the athletic director at Texas.
Why it wouldn't be him: I'm only bringing this up because multiple agents brought it up to me -- and if they're bringing it up to me you can trust they'd bring it up with their clients. But Smart is old enough to remember how ugly it got for Tubby Smith at Kentucky even though Smith went to 10 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and it's possible he might just want to avoid walking into such a high-pressured job. Honestly, that's something every candidate, regardless of race, would have to consider because coaching at Kentucky is, I think, unlike coaching anywhere else in the country. Calipari and his family are built for it. But that life certainly is not for everybody.
4. Eric Musselman
Currently: Coach at Nevada
Résumé: Musselman, 53, has spent the past three years building Nevada into a top-shelf program. He's averaged 27.0 wins per season in Reno, won back-to-back Mountain West Conference regular-season titles, advanced to the Sweet 16 and recruited well enough to have a team.
Why it could be him: Calipari is a former NBA coach who took a job in a non-Power-5 conference (at Memphis) and turned it into a national power before moving to Kentucky; that's kinda similar to Musselman's resume to date. And if hiring somebody who fit that description last time worked, why wouldn't Kentucky consider doing it again?
Why it wouldn't be him: Musselman doesn't look it. But, like Donovan, he's just six years younger than Calipari. So if Calipari really does coach to 70, Musselman would be 64 when the job opened. And there might be better/younger candidates at that time.
5. Sean Miller
Currently: Coach at Arizona
Résumé: Miller, 49, has led Arizona to seven of the past eight NCAA Tournaments, won at least a share of five Pac-12 regular-season titles and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament four times in the past 11 seasons. He was the A-10 Coach of the Year (while at Xavier) in 2006, and the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2011, 2014 and 2017.
Why it could be him: Miller has flourished at Arizona and solidified himself as one of the sport's most consistent winners. But he's from Pittsburgh and, it's no secret in basketball circles, that getting back to the Eastern Time Zone is something he wouldn't mind someday. Yes, he had an assistant (Book Richardson) charged with federal crimes in the ongoing FBI investigation; that's not ideal. But if the case unfolds without Miller ever being directly tied to anything, it's not crazy to think Kentucky would seriously consider him -- especially when you consider that the school hired Calipari in 2009 even though he'd already vacated one Final Four and was about to vacate another.
Why it wouldn't be him: It'll be a non-starter for Kentucky if the FBI investigation eventually implements Miller in any way. That goes without saying. So, ultimately, everything depends on the ongoing investigation, and what happens with Richardson, even if Miller continues to win at a high level at Arizona from now until Kentucky needs its next coach.
In addition to the names listed above, some other coaches various sources mentioned as possible Kentucky candidates someday are Fred Hoiberg, Mike Hopkins, Chris Beard, Gregg Marshall and Chris Collins. And, before you ask, no, I did not consider Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Simply put, I don't believe he's ever coaching college basketball again.
Like I wrote, the timeline for Kentucky is the biggest unknown and why it's difficult to discuss possible Calipari successors. If the job were to open in the next five or six years, any of the above names would make sense. But if the job really doesn't open for another 10-to-12 years, the list could be completely different because some of these candidates will have aged out of consideration, and the stars of the profession could be coaches who are currently unknown.
Either way, know this: Kentucky will have its pick of top-shelf candidates.
Following John Calipari will not be easy.
But there will be a long list of people dying to give it a try.
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