Successor Series: Who takes over if John Calipari leaves Kentucky?
The SI.com Successor Series will examine who might replace some of the bigger names in college basketball when they inevitably leave their posts. It is intended as pure speculation -- food for thought and fodder for discussion in the long hoops offseason. That said: Down the line, we reserve the right to claim we knew it all along.
John Calipari, Kentucky
Career record: 555-174
NCAA titles: One (2012)
Whoever replaces Calipari at one of college basketball's biggest jobs might have to wait longer than expected. Just last Thursday, Kentucky announced a new seven-year, $52.5 million contract for its head coach that, in the final three seasons of the deal, will earn him at least $8 million per season. If Calipari wants to leap to the NBA, he will. It just seems a less plausible move now.
But whenever there is an opening, the job will require an uncommon combination of personality, patience and coaching aptitude to produce consistent winners. Calipari has forged his niche in Lexington as a master talent accumulator and manager, having recruited the top-ranked class in the country, according to Scout.com, prior to each of his first five seasons in Lexington and the No. 2 class this year. He's also put 17 players in the NBA to date, with two more (Julius Randle and James Young) expected to be chosen in the first round of the draft this month.
Kentucky undoubtedly would aim for a proven recruiter and winner and, presumably, offer enough money to back up its bid. Few places provide the platform to win as big as regularly as UK or as much intense pressure to do so. The last time the Wildcats needed a coach, its fans obsessed over a door. Who might be a fit and a willing candidate in Lexington?
If Calipari Left Tomorrow
Sean Miller, Arizona head coach. The question is whether Miller would leave a similarly stacked program, especially after he agreed last month to a new contract extension through 2019. Of course, that wouldn't stop Kentucky from pursuing him if it wanted him, especially when Miller's base salary is a mere $1.6 million. Miller has signed nine top-100 recruits, per Scout.com, between 2012 and '14 and won 72 percent of his games at Xavier and Arizona. He's taken his teams to three Elite Eights in the past seven years, including two in the last four with the Wildcats. No, he hasn't been to a Final Four, but he's undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the country.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State head coach. His coaching chops are undebatable, after leading the Shockers to a Final Four berth in 2013 and a 35-0 start in 2014 before losing to Calipari's Wildcats in the NCAA tournament's round of 32. As good as Marshall has it at Wichita State – his annual salary is $1.75 million, for starters, which is terrific money for a Missouri Valley Conference coach – this would represent the top-shelf opportunity most coaches can't ignore. His temperament would be the only question; Marshall has the necessary charisma but also a serrated, straight-shooting edge that might prove problematic under the Kentucky microscope. It would be amazing theater, though.
Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth head coach. Smart can afford to be choosy, because as with Marshall, he enjoys incredible security and stability at VCU. (In March 2013, he inked a 10-year extension that earns him $1.5 million a year at the moment and, because of rollover clauses, could last until 2028.) He's won 75 percent of his games at VCU. His high-pressure "HAVOC" defense could send a jolt through Rupp Arena. He possesses the personality to handle the Kentucky cauldron, but so far has rejected reported entreaties from high-major programs such as N.C. State, Illinois and Marquette. At some point, one of these bigger opportunities may entice Smart. There's none bigger than Kentucky.
Jay Wright, Villanova head coach. Wright took Villanova to the Elite Eight in 2006 and the Final Four in 2009, hit a one-year lull in 2011-12 with a 13-19 season but then directed the program to a 29-win campaign this year. At its best, his system relies on incredible ball movement and unselfishness and creativity. The affable and even-keeled Wright, a Churchville, Pa., native, is clearly comfortable in what is essentially a hometown job, but he's also 52 and coaching in a Big East Conference that is perhaps a half-step out of the national spotlight. If UK came calling soon, would Wright deny himself a chance at a marquee spot?
Longshots And Long-Rage Plans
Billy Donovan, Florida head coach. It would all depend on whether the two-time national champion has a desire for a change of scenery or a new challenge at the time. The former Kentucky assistant knows the place, which could work for or against the Wildcats.
Tim Miles, Nebraska head coach. Miles is 34-32 in two years in Lincoln, and it's way too soon to assume the upward trajectory will continue at a steep enough rate to warrant Kentucky's attention. The Wildcats, of course, have experience hiring an up-and-coming coach in his mid-40s from a school with little hoops tradition. Tubby Smith was 45 when he left Georgia to take over at UK in 1997 and had been a head coach for only six seasons. All he did in his first year in Lexington was win a national title. When Smith departed after 10 seasons, he was replaced by Billy Gillispie, who was 47 and had been a head coach for six years, most recently Texas A&M. Gillispie only lasted two seasons, the last of which ended in the NIT, before being fired. It's a stretch to invoke Gillispie's name in the same conversation as Miles, though. Miles, 47, doesn't appear to have any of the personal baggage that Gillispie (a reputation as a workaholic and at least two previous DUI arrests) brought with him to Kentucky. One would imagine a little trepidation from the Wildcats in again hiring a coach who hasn't occupied such a searing spotlight before. Still, if UK does come calling, Miles should be relaxed and self-deprecating enough to manage the pressures.
Archie Miller, Dayton head coach. Sean's younger brother would have to continue to win huge at Dayton and perhaps at another stop, too before getting a shot in Lexington. But if Calipari stays long enough, the 35-year-old Miller should have time to do that.
Orlando Antigua, South Florida head coach. An assistant under Calipari at both Memphis and Kentucky, Antigua left Lexington this spring for his first head coaching job. He'll have to prove himself in that role first, but if he turns the Bulls into big winners, familiarity might earn him a call way down the line. Richard Pitino, Minnesota head coach. He is likely to be one of the top contenders when his father abdicates the throne in Louisville. But if the 31-year-old succeeds wildly at Minnesota for a few years and Calipari exits Lexington before Rick Pitino leaves the Cardinals, could the scion of a former Wildcats coach resist? Or would Dad talk him out of it, speaking from his experience leading the Wildcats from 1989-97?