The time has finally come for Kentucky to start the search for John Calipari’s successor

His "lifetime contract" doesn't leave the program with many ways out, but Kentucky needs to search for every possible escape hatch after another March Madness disappointment. This latest NCAA tournament loss is just another symptom of a fundamentally flawed program.

Oakland v Kentucky
Oakland v Kentucky / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

The jovial mood of John Calipari’s Pittsburgh homecoming which began with an impromptu call to a local sports radio station, and a press conference turned lesson in "Pittsburghese" quickly dissipated once his team took the floor. The Moon Township native's return was cut short with a Round of 64 loss to No. 14 seed Oakland out of the Horizon League, 80-76.

Kentucky couldn’t put a lid on Oakland senior Jack Gohlke who finished with 32 points on 10-20 shooting, all from three, and the Wildcats got sent packing in Round 1 by a double-digit seed for the second time in three years. All of a sudden, the Wildcats haven’t made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2019. 

In a sport of constant roster churn, the only connective thread through the past four years of failures, from a 9-16 season in 2020-21 to an upset at the hands of the Golden Grizzlies, has been Calipari. Kentucky’s head coach of 15 years, who in 2012 delivered the program its eighth national title, is firmly tethered to the program because of a record-breaking 10-year extension in 2019 that has been termed a "lifetime contract."

“What I hate is, this team that really worked and did some good stuff, and we didn’t play great, they did, they made some unbelievable shots. We even went to a box-and-one and we fouled him one time and he made another one, but they shouldn’t be and our team and the season (shouldn’t be) defined by that game, but it will be.” Calipari lamented to CBS’s Evan Washburn clearly emotional off the devastating loss, continuing, “this is the professional we’ve chosen,” recalling Lee Strasburg’s infamous character, Hyman Roth’s famous line in The Godfather Part II. 

A fitting reference to a movie defined by who's in and who’s out, and with well over a decade between Cal and his finest moment with Anthony Davis, Kentucky's fans want Cal out, and Greg Kampe, Oakland’s head coach, has taken the role of Solazzo in The Godfather Part I asking Tom Hagen, “10 years ago, could I have gotten to him?"

The answer is probably not. Not in the heyday of the one-and-done era when Calipari was producing NBA superstars and making Final Four runs with legendary consistently. Cal is slipping, and the rest of college basketball smells blood in the water... blue blood. It might be time for Kentucky to move on to the next generation, as so many other blue bloods like Duke, North Carolina, and Villanova already have. Those succession plans haven’t all yielded tremendous results, but at what point is enough, enough?

Before the ball was even tipped Calipari had already made a glaring mistake, continuing to stubbornly pencil D.J. Wagner’s name into the starting lineup over Reed Sheppard. On this occasion, he compounded it by starting a frontcourt of Justin Edwards, Tre Mitchell, and Ugonna Onyenso, against an Oakland team that plays almost exclusively zone defense and came in allowing 8.2 made threes per game which ranked 284th in the country. 

“We had some guys that didn’t play the way they had been playing all year,” Calipari continued to Washburn, almost certainly referencing Sheppard who finished 1-5 from the field for three points in 26 minutes. “We knew the zone would be tough, but we missed some shots that we don’t miss.”

While unabashedly throwing his young roster under the bus, Calipari did make a fair point. Oakland shot 15-31 from three (48.4%) while Kentucky made just nine of its 28 attempts from beyond the arc (32.1%). Three-point variance is one of the great equalizers in basketball and Kentucky ended up on the wrong end of that seesaw against an opponent that was red hot. Still, with a roster loaded to the gills with five stars and quality veterans, there were answers available to Cal that wouldn’t leave the game up to dumb luck. 

Kentucky's roster might be the most talented in the entire country, but at no point did Calipari get his group of score-first shot-making guards to sacrifice for the sake of winning basketball. This is an inevitable consequence of a head coach flaunting NBA lottery picks like national titles, and an obvious symptom of a program constructed on five-stars and handshake deals that stick the highest-rated freshman in the starting lineup over the best five players on the roster. There's no way to rein in that type of team and eradicate that pervasive selfishness that ultimately doomed the Wildcats in the final minutes of their first-round loss.

With 1:49 left in the 2nd half, Antonio Reeves made a three to bring Kentucky within two, 73-71, and from that point on, Kentucky’s next three shots were all three-pointers until a Justin Edwards layup with four seconds left made it 79-76. There was no sound game plan to attack Oakland’s zone or a strong enough defensive effort to create turnovers and beat it down the floor. There was an obvious athleticism advantage that was never exploited. Calipari had the guys to win this game and a few more in this tournament, and he knew it. 

“This one is painful, and the reason is, there are other times you lose a game and you know your team is what it is, but this team, I really felt was built for this moment,” Calipari said. 

While he deserves credit for building it, he also deserves blame for the way it performed in the SEC Tournament, where Kentucky went one-and-done and the NCAA Tournament was more of the same. 

The reality is, that Kentucky likely cannot move on from John Calipari. But at this point, they have to try. Coach Cal will always bring top talent to Lexington, and for most schools that’s good enough, but Kentucky is the bluest of blue bloods, the most historic program in college basketball, where good, isn’t good enough, and whatever John Calipari’s last four years have been, is unacceptable.

Next. Kentucky fans call for John Calipari's head after first round upset loss. Kentucky fans call for John Calipari's head after first round upset loss. dark