Home » There is no limit on winning for Kentucky’s next coach. So who’s a candidate?

There is no limit on winning for Kentucky’s next coach. So who’s a candidate?

John Calipari is expected to become the next head coach at Arkansas, and Kentucky needs a new men’s basketball coach. As hastily as the last guy abandoned the post after his latest postseason failure, that’s how fast prospective candidates will run toward Lexington. Probably.

Five different men have won national championships there. Kentucky jockeys with Kansas to be the winningest program of all time. There is no ceiling, because there’s no limit on the winning a coach can do there.

The expectations and scrutiny, of course, are not for the insecure or faint of heart. But the upside might be too much for many to resist.

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Job evaluation

John Calipari was one of the two highest-paid coaches in the country. Money should not be an issue — for anything.

But then there was 2022, and the very public spat between Calipari and athletic director Mitch Barnhart regarding the need for a new practice facility. Does Kentucky actually need one? Might be in the eye of the beholder. The Craft Center opened in 2007. Is that antiquated in the arms race of college athletics?

The name, image and likeness operation is also worth examination. Kentucky notably lost NIL mastermind TJ Beisner to North Carolina last offseason, and he dramatically improved the situation in Chapel Hill. On March 14, Kentucky launched an NIL initiative with a goal of $1 million. Less than a month later it has roughly $50,000 in the till.

And of course, Kentucky is in the SEC. Coaching in one of the two conferences that will shape the future of all sports is a fairly secure position.

Call List (in alphabetical order)

Billy Donovan, Chicago Bulls head coach: The dream candidate for Kentucky fans ever since … oh, about 2007. Donovan was a Kentucky assistant under Rick Pitino and doesn’t have the baggage of his former boss. But would he leave the NBA for the fishbowl of Lexington? Does he have any interest in returning to college? It seems unlikely, but Barnhart has to at least make the call and make him say no.

Scott Drew, Baylor head coach: Drew and UK AD Barnhart have been friendly since the 2021 NCAA Tournament bubble, when Barnhart was the selection committee chairman and Baylor won the title. Multiple people familiar with Barnhart’s thinking have said Drew would be his top choice whenever the job opened. The Baylor coach orchestrated arguably the greatest build in college basketball history. Baylor was going on probation when he got the job. Drew had the Bears in the NCAA Tournament in his fifth season. He has won two Big 12 titles and been to five consecutive tournaments. He is one of the sport’s top recruiters. Baylor has had a lottery pick the last two years and has another projected lottery pick this year. Baylor has just gone through this with Drew, who was also the top choice at Louisville. Baylor and Drew agreed recently to terms on a new contract, according to a source briefed on the matter.

Sean Miller, Xavier head coach: Is this an easy or hard sell for Kentucky? This past season was a 16-18 slog through injuries. He’s never made a Final Four. But he’s won 71.6 percent of his games and can martial all of the program’s resources in the correct direction. And he’d probably say yes very quickly, with an eye on levels of success that he never quite attained at Arizona.

Nate Oats, Alabama head coach: This might make the most sense, but an $18 million buyout would require some seismic belief. Oats might be worth it to Kentucky. In five years at Alabama, the 49-year-old is 62-28 in the SEC with two league titles and four NCAA Tournament appearances. He’s reached two Sweet 16 trips and delivered an ultimate statement this year: a Final Four trip. Not only does Oats win, but his style of play would have Cats fans drooling. Fast pace, high pressure, 3-point centric. Oats had already proven he can recruit at a level required in Lexington and produces pros. In theory, what he’s already done at Alabama is what’s expected at Kentucky. (Update: Oats released a statement on Monday night that he was “fully committed” to Alabama: “Despite any rumors to the contrary, rest assured that I will continue that pursuit as your head coach.”)

Bruce Pearl, Auburn head coach: We have long heard that Barnhart would not be interested in hiring someone who has served a three-year NCAA show-cause penalty, but he’s among the multiple SEC coaches who did more than Calipari with less. He won the SEC regular season in 2018 and 2022 and the league tournament in 2019 and 2024. He’s been to a Final Four (Auburn’s only one ever) more recently than Kentucky. So if a bunch of these other candidates say no, Pearl’s previous missteps might suddenly be less offensive to Barnhart. In terms of personality, the carnival-barking Pearl is a perfect fit.

Rick Pitino, St. John’s head coach: This would be, unequivocally, the most incredible result of an already incredible turn of events. But it’s also a scenario that has to be considered, even if it’s entirely unlikely. Pitino won more than 80 percent of his games in a legendary Kentucky tenure, including a 1996 national title, and is still perhaps the most loved and hated man in the state. Pitino would undoubtedly win if he returned to Lexington, but he’s 71 and it’s hard to seriously imagine this being a realistic option. That said, Pitino is still coaching and this job is open and how amazing would this reunion be? Pitino pumped life back into dormant St. John’s this past year and is an absolutely force of nature in fundraising for both the program and in name, image and license funding. He hasn’t exactly slowed down, despite his age, and all the times his career nearly went awry. Does Kentucky entertain the thought?

Mark Pope, BYU head coach: The former son coming home? Yeah, that’ll play. Pope was part of Rick Pitino’s 1995-96 national championship team in Lexington, and has long been rumored as a potential Calipari successor strictly because of that background. Of course, stepping into a job of this magnitude requires more than just a feel-good story — and on that front, Pope amplified his credentials this season in a major way, leading BYU to 23 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth in the program’s first season in the Big 12. Pope runs gorgeous offense — the Cougars finished this season No. 14 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom — and now has two NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons, and likely would’ve had a third had the 2020 NCAA Tournament not been canceled due to COVID-19. The two big questions here: 1) Pope’s buyout, which is unknown because of BYU’s private status (but is unlikely to be prohibitive); and 2) Pope has never won a NCAA Tournament game. Would Kentucky, one of the few championship-or-bust programs in the country, really put that much faith in someone without a win in the Big Dance?

Kelvin Sampson, Houston head coach: He turns 69 in October. He is also the reigning AP coach of the year. The way it makes sense: Sampson is wanting to take one grand-slam swing at a national championship before he retires while leaving his son, Kellen, with a well-stocked cupboard as his successor.

Shaka Smart, Marquette head coach: It was made perfectly clear by Smart’s reps that he wasn’t interested in some prominent openings earlier in this cycle, but none of those jobs were Kentucky. The easy argument against this is that Smart already lived the life of a major, state school, hyper-high profile job, and it didn’t work out. But Texas and Kentucky are not remotely similar jobs. Kentucky is a basketball school — maybe the basketball school — and is the equivalent of Marquette on all available steroids. We wonder if Smart would have interest in turning his life upside down in the most dramatic way possible, but wouldn’t he at least have to answer the call, if it comes?

And the hire is…

Donovan is the pie-in-the-sky option here, and if you’re making calls of that caliber, you have to at least contact Drew (and maybe even Dan Hurley, although the odds of him leaving Connecticut are basically zero). But Baylor just redid Drew’s contract — not to mention the program’s sparkling new arena, Foster Pavilion, which opened in January. In the case those fall through? Oats, who surpassed Calipari in the SEC hierarchy the last few seasons, would certainly pick up the phone, and would be as close to an ideal hire as Cats fans could hope for at this point in the coaching carousel.

(Photo: Justin Ford / Getty Images)