John Calipari [600x400]
John Calipari [600x400] (Credit: Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

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John Calipari told a raucous crowd he's "excited" to lead Arkansas as he pumped his fists while Razorbacks fans cheered for him during his official introduction in Fayetteville on Wednesday.

Calipari, the former Kentucky head coach, said it was difficult to leave Lexington, but he believes Arkansas, which reached the Elite Eight twice and the Sweet 16 under former head coach Eric Musselman, is positioned to compete with the bluebloods.

"Kentucky is the bluest of blue," Calipari said after he was introduced. "There's only a few schools like that, and I hate to tell you ... Arkansas is one of them."

Four years ago, Calipari was ejected in Kentucky's 73-66 win over Arkansas during the 2019-20 season. He joked about the difference in the reception he received Wednesday.

"I have never gotten that kind of greeting in this building," he said. "As a matter of fact, you were probably in the building when they threw me out before the game ended. We did win that game, though. You guys were throwing stuff at me. I wasn't hearing any cheers."

Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman and multiple former Razorbacks basketball players, such as Sidney Moncrief and Joe Johnson, were at Bud Walton Arena to welcome Calipari, who arrived following a whirlwind of rumors and reports about his future following a rocky final season at Kentucky.

His team's loss to Oakland in the NCAA tournament was its second first-round loss in three years, and that stretch followed a 9-16 campaign in 2020-21. After Kentucky's upset loss to the Grizzlies last month, athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced Calipari would return, despite a multitude of fans demanding a change. Calipari said then he was ready to reboot Kentucky basketball.

But weeks later, he was in Fayetteville as the new head coach at Arkansas.

On Wednesday, he said Arkansas power booster John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, called and asked him to meet with Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek while they were both in Phoenix for the Final Four.

Calipari said he asked a priest about his decision once it became clear Arkansas had strong interest, and the priest told him to go for a walk and imagine himself as both the head coach at Kentucky and the head coach at Arkansas. Calipari said the latter made him "excited," but he didn't intend to overshadow Monday's national championship between Purdue and Connecticut with the news.

"I didn't want anything out until after the national championship game -- that we were even talking -- because I didn't think that was fair," Calipari said.

Calipari said former Arkansas head coach Eddie Sutton had been a mentor and friend before his death in 2020. He also told the Arkansas leaders who hired him that he wanted to hear from former head coach Nolan Richardson, who led the program to its only national title in 1994.

Calipari said he spoke with Richardson and received his blessing before Wednesday's ceremony.

"I will tell you that he challenged his kids," Calipari said about Richardson, a Basketball Hall of Famer.

As Calipari discussed the pros of his move, he also alluded to the difference between leaving a job now and leaving a job before name, image and likeness and the transfer portal reshaped college sports. When a coach left in the past, he said, his players were "stuck there." While he didn't say he will bring some of his former players and recruits to Fayetteville, he mentioned that "leaving the kids" was his biggest challenge in the past.

On Wednesday, ESPN reported that five-star Kentucky recruit Jayden Quaintance, the top player in Kentucky's 2024 class, had reopened his recruitment. And former Kentucky star Malik Monk, an Arkansas native, tweeted that he will support Calipari in his new post. On his podcast, DeMarcus Cousins, one of the anchors of Calipari's first recruiting class at Kentucky, said Fayetteville will become a hub for elite players now.

But Calipari told the crowd Wednesday he'll need time to build.

"I've got to put a roster together," Calipari said. "I just met with the team. There were three guys in there and they were all in the portal. We've got work to do, and the only thing I want to tell you is I'm not that guy that has a magic wand. That's not who I am. I'm the grinder who comes every time. When you watch my team from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, we get better."

Just two weeks ago, Calipari sat next to Barnhart and talked about his future in Kentucky. But a lot has changed since then.

Calipari said he and his family gave "every ounce" they could to the Kentucky program and community, which allowed them to leave without any regrets.

"It was [hard to leave]," he said. "We've been there 15 years. Fifteen years. Great times, great achievements. Forty players to the NBA, 30 kids graduated. I love that state, I love the governor. The people are the salt of the earth."