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CLAY HENRY: Hiring Calipari shows Hogs’ basketball all way back

Razorbacks stun even some of larger donors by landing John Calipari, which nobody saw coming this week.



My cell phone pinged with constant texts throughout the most magical 30 minutes in the history of Razorback Nation.

The introduction of John Calipari as Arkansas basketball coach was probably making phones ping not only in the state, but also across the nation.

Warren Stephens and John Tyson were getting texts, too. Both are key figures in this monumental Calipari hire.

They were probably just like those coming through my phone as I sat mesmerized in Bud Walton Arena as Calipari provided a glimpse of why he is the best recruiter in any sport anywhere.

I loved reading them.

“We are finally serious,” an old friend texted me. “Anyone in our state who supports the Hogs knows that now. And as far as anyone in the nation who says we are no longer relevant, take that.”

Another said simply, “Finally.”

There were other one-word texts: Unbelievable, wonderful, fantastic, yes!

But my favorite came from daughter Sarah, sitting in a church community group where the TV coverage of the event put the start of the meeting on hold.

It was a fantastic message:

“Everybody thought Cal was a blue blood but it turns out he bleeds Razorback red.”

My response: that’s a pretty good lead.

No matter how you write it, make sure the headline is in 90 point type, the biggest available from my old newspaper days.

There really has never been a sports story in Arkansas deserving of that big of a headline. Just think about the importance of Arkansas doings through the years. The only thing that rivals it came when Bill Clinton became president.

Yes, it’s a big deal.


Dane Bradshaw, ESPN basketball analyst and the man on the microphone for the SEC tournament, understands the excitement in our state.

“Cal doesn’t even have a roster yet, but you can actually make the argument that Arkansas has as good of a chance to go to the Final Four as anyone,” Bradshaw said.

“His move to Arkansas will actually be helpful in that goal because there will be less noise in year one at Arkansas than year 16 at Kentucky. He’s leaving behind the constant second guessing you get at Kentucky.”

Oh, that happens at Arkansas, too. But there is usually a honeymoon.

“It’s going to be a different mindset of the fans,” Bradshaw said. “He gets to prove a fan base right instead of trying to prove them wrong.

“It’s all about redemption now. The distractions will be less. The stress has to be less. It’s got to be a more enjoyable place for John.”

Bradshaw has always been a Calipari fan. He was a star at Memphis White Station, a state champ and player of the year in Tennessee. It was in the early stages of Cal’s great run at Memphis.

Calipari did recruit Bradshaw, but he would sign and star at Tennessee for Bruce Pearl. The story went that the phone call to Calipari upon Bradshaw’s UT commitment was received with kindness.

Calipari wished him well and told him the Memphis gym was open to him in the summer if he needed pickup games on trips home.

“If I’m being honest, he recruited me lightly,” Bradshaw said. “The city was full of great players at the time and he was getting anyone he wanted.”

Bradshaw said Calipari’s style would be fun for Arkansas fans.

“He’s got the modern dribble drive offense,” Bradshaw said. “Kentucky fans enjoyed it. They are going to shoot threes and he’s going to have great players.

“I know he’s got an empty roster, but he’ll be fine with NIL and the transfer portal. I think he understands now to mix it because you need some veterans.”

Calipari said as much Wednesday night in his visit with the media. He said the college game is terribly physical and freshmen are generally not equipped for it mentally.

“You might see players in college at 26 because of all of the waivers allowed now,” he said.


In other words, you better have some older players, too.

“He’s good at managing great players and their egos,” Bradshaw said. “The key is how much energy does he have for that? I think plenty. I see no problem with him coaching the next five years.

“What he does is let the stars play and he’s going to have stars. He teaches how to be the hunted. At Memphis and Kentucky, his teams were always the hunted.

“He doesn’t mind being the villain. He plays a good villain.

“The thing I’m sure about is that he has the energy and enthusiasm to do the job at Arkansas.”

The common theme from everyone who knows Calipari concerns community engagement. Whether it’s through the Catholic Church – and he’s a devout Catholic – or other charities, the community wins with Calipari.

“He engages the community,” Bradshaw said. “If there is a local crisis, he’s there with his players. They had those terrible floods in Kentucky and he got involved in fund raising.

“It’s pretty simple; he believes in washing the feet of the poor.

“John Calipari checks all of the boxes.”

It all seems like a dream. It happened as fast as a tornado. There was rumor of it, and then it was done.

Tyson set up the first meeting with Hunter Yurachek, the UA athletic director, on Friday. Things begin to whirl into motion on Saturday among the state’s top Razorback supporters.

Stephens said he got a call from Yurachek that morning and quickly called Tyson for an offer to join hands. If you have Tyson and Stephens involved, there can be no question that Calipari knows the money will be there. Both offered significant NIL support.

Actually, they were already bought in on NIL, but are now at new levels.

Stephens went one step further. He offered a retention package (that Musselman walked away from) that is above the school’s compensation.

“We did it among (Stephens, Inc.) colleagues for Musselman,” Stephens said. “It was a seven-year package and there was still five years left. If you leave, you get nothing.


“Hunter asked if we could do that for John. I told him he could count on me and I’d think the others would go along. It will be for five years.

“I have to admit when Hunter called and he told me we were involved in talks with Cal, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I immediately asked if John (Tyson) was in the loop.”

Then Stephens phoned Tyson, his old friend.

“I told Johnny, you’ve done good,” Stephens said. “This deal does not happen without him.

“It’s an incredible thing, really. I think it’s the most significant hire in the history of Arkansas athletics.

“I think it sends a great message to the basketball world. It’s just extraordinary.

“I’m excited. Our family is long time supporters of Razorback athletics. It goes pretty deep with us and this is the most high profile hire in our history.”

Stephens recalls a conversation last week at Augusta National Golf Club that that provides perspective.

“I was already at (Augusta National Golf Club) last week and was talking to a caddie,” Stephens said. “I asked him who would be the best to hire for our basketball job. He said maybe Bruce Pearl or Bill Self.

“After we got Cal it hit me, that no one would ever think that high. He’s at the top. Give credit to John Tyson for thinking that big.”

Tyson was smiling from ear to ear when approached him at the end of the Calipari introduction.

“This is big, but spread the credit,” he said. “Call Warren. He really helped. So have many others. This is not a one-man deal. It’s so exciting.”

As it marinated over night, it was clear Tyson was just as thrilled.

“What a great evening for Hog basketball and all sports,” he said. “It was an outstanding moment.”

One of the unanswered questions among fans, how did Calipari and Tyson become such great friends?


“I met (Calipari) through a mutual friend involved in sports – mostly basketball – about 20 years ago,” Tyson said. “We just started talking about common leadership issues.

“It was based on a desire to improve and teach young people how to approach and achieve their personal and professional goals, be it in sports, business and most of all in life while being good folks.

“Since then our relationship has evolved and grown.”

Calipari is all about relationships. He’s a master recruiter with no rivals. He convinces parents that he cares about their sons. Tyson saw that immediately.

That is the common theme of the talk Calipari had Wednesday morning with Nolan Richardson. Calipari sought Nolan’s blessing early on in his talks with Yurachek and Tyson.

Calipari said “it made his day” when Nolan spoke of the way he “cared for players,” almost all who remain tight with their old coach as they make hundreds of millions in the NBA.

In his podium interview with Chuck Barrett (who was perfect), Calipari described himself as a “grinder” and a “gatherer.” He also detailed his upbringing, highlighting his mother’s work selling ice cream in the school cafeteria.

“It was Friday to Friday for my family,” Calipari said. “Who knows what that means?”

It means tough times as you run out of money on Thursday each week. Many in Arkansas know that feeling. He connected to everyone immediately as he always does, usually forever.

In that respect, the circle was complete. Clearly, he’s got the state’s billionaires on his side and now everyone else.

The last Arkansas coach celebrated the return of Bud Walton Arena sellouts. He begged for a breakthrough in attendance, especially with students.

Asking fans to attend shouldn’t be necessary. Nolan didn’t just fill Bud Walton Arena, there was a waiting list of 10,000.

Calipari joked with Yurachek in the media interviews about ticket sales.

“I don’t have to sell tickets, do I?” Calipari said.

No, that’s not going to be a problem anymore. Arkansas basketball is all the way back.