National championship or bust? Why coaching Kentucky men, Tennessee women is so tough

They are supposed to be dream jobs. But when the head-coaching positions for the Kentucky men’s and Tennessee women’s college basketball programs recently came open, several potential candidates apparently passed on the opportunities.

The programs have each won eight NCAA titles and have large fan bases. In contrast to many other leagues, the SEC is as stable as any conference in college sports.

These should have been destination jobs many coaches might desire. So why did it seem as if they weren’t?

Kentucky hired former Wildcats player and 1996 national champion Mark Pope, who spent the past five seasons at BYU. His ties to the program and experience as a head coach didn’t prevent the initial wave of skepticism from Wildcats fans, in part because the school didn’t lure coaches to Lexington with national championships elsewhere. Since then, it seems as if Big Blue Nation is willing to welcome him, but expectations remain sky-high.

Tennessee, by contrast, went for an unexpected hire: Kim Caldwell, who had one year of head-coaching experience at the Division I level at Marshall before taking over the Lady Vols. Athletic director Danny White, who fired Tennessee alum Kellie Harper after five seasons, called the search for her replacement — which lasted less than a week — “methodical.”

Caldwell’s hiring was made public hours before the women’s national championship game on April 7. Was it to grab headlines on the same day as current SEC powerhouse South Carolina won the title? Or the opposite: Did Tennessee want a less-than-conventional choice to go a little more under the radar?

ESPN’s Michael Voepel and Myron Medcalf take a look at what the coaching searches and eventual hires tell us about where these two programs are.




Newly hired Vol Caldwell shares vision for basketball program

Kim Caldwell shares with SEC Now’s Peter Burns the interview process and the playstyle she wants to bring to Tennessee, which emphasizes pressure defense and quick scoring.

Is Tennessee still considered one of the top head-coaching jobs in women’s college basketball?

That’s a tricky question. Of course it is, because it’s a big-name program in a superpower conference. Yet this job went to someone who has spent most of her career in Division II, where she won a national championship with Glenville State in 2022. How does that reflect on the status of the job that the legendary Pat Summitt held from 1974 to 2012?

For one thing, Caldwell is not being paid as one of the top coaches in the SEC, let alone all of the sport. Her five-year deal at $750,000 per season places her seventh in the league, according to figures from the Knoxville News Sentinel. South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and LSU’s Kim Mulkey both make more than $3 million per season.

However, Caldwell has a clause in her contract that will bump her salary dramatically if she leads Tennessee to the NCAA title. In that case, her compensation would match or exceed the top salary in women’s basketball.

It seems Tennessee is prepared to pay big — but only if it gets the largest prize.

What are the biggest challenges taking over the Lady Vols?

Battling the memories of the past while trying to meet the expectations of the present and future. Tennessee has made the NCAA tournament every season since Summitt retired. Harper made the Sweet 16 twice in four tournaments — the 2020 edition was canceled, of course, due to COVID-19 — and didn’t finish lower than tied for fourth in the SEC. Yet that wasn’t enough.

Can Tennessee replicate the glory days of Summitt? It seems unlikely. Can Tennessee still challenge for SEC and NCAA titles? With the right combination of talent, yes. But by firing Harper, White made it clear that what would be considered success at most places apparently won’t be at Tennessee.

What changes in the SEC or nationally have impacted Tennessee?

For many years, the SEC was the best conference in women’s basketball, and Tennessee was the best SEC team. It wasn’t until 2017 that another SEC team (South Carolina) won a national championship.

The Gamecocks under Staley have won two more NCAA titles since and just finished a perfect season. Everyone is chasing the Gamecocks. LSU, which won the 2022 national championship, is also ahead of Tennessee. And the rest of the SEC — which will include Texas and Oklahoma next season — is highly competitive, too.

Established coaches such as NC State’s Wes Moore, Indiana’s Teri Moren and UCLA’s Cori Close were among those rumored to have been contacted by Tennessee. But all have established strong programs and don’t need Tennessee to accomplish career goals.

This is less of a reflection on Tennessee and more on the blossoming sport. Years ago, Summitt predicted this would happen as a natural part of women’s basketball’s growth.

Was it important for Tennessee to hire someone outside the Lady Vols family?

After two of Summitt’s former players turned Tennessee head coaches — longtime assistant Holly Warlick, then Harper — both were fired, so the inevitable next step was hiring someone who had no ties to Summitt and the Lady Vols’ past.

White has touted Caldwell as a rising star, someone he believes is ready for the keys to one of the most historic programs in collegiate women’s athletics.

It appears Tennessee fans really want to believe this will work; that White’s reputation for “out of the box” hirings will pay off. However, Caldwell has lost Karoline Striplin to the transfer portal, but retained players such as Jewel Spear and Tess Darby. Forward Alyssa Latham, who spent last season at Syracuse, is transferring to Tennessee.

Caldwell has said her style of high-pressure defense translating to a lot of offense will work in the SEC, but that remains to be seen against some of the best coaches and players in the sport. If it’s successful and Caldwell takes Tennessee back to Final Four territory, White’s hire will be hailed as genius. If it isn’t, he will have fired a former Lady Vol only to set Tennessee back even further. — Michael Voepel




Pope says he understands lofty expectations at Kentucky

Mark Pope tells “The Paul Finebaum Show” the Wildcats’ basketball program belongs to the entire state of Kentucky and Big Blue Nation, who expect national titles.

How has Kentucky’s place in college basketball changed as the sport has evolved?

Kentucky hasn’t lost its spot as one of the true blue bloods of college basketball. Under John Calipari, the program assembled more top-ranked recruiting classes than any coach in America. Overall, his teams produced 35 first-round picks. No other program can match that number.

But this is a sport that is judged on postseason results. And the past five years have been substandard for the Wildcats. The increased significance of name, image and likeness (NIL) rules and the transfer portal have leveled the playing field somewhat and made it more difficult for teams built with one-and-done prospects to win national titles.

Under Calipari, the talent level was always high; the postseason results were the issue. But the brand is still one of the strongest in men’s college basketball.



Pope on rebuilding UK: ‘Trying to find the guys that fit here’

New head coach Mark Pope shares his vision for the Wildcats, focusing on building a world-class program that Kentucky deserves.

What is the biggest challenge of coaching at Kentucky?

Probably meeting expectations in a climate that is changing.

Kentucky still boasts one of the influential brands in the sport, and Calipari’s presence played a role in that. Still, even the former head coach, who had a national title and four trips to the Final Four in five years, failed to match the expectations of a fan base that wants to compete for a national title every season.

Mark Pope is not entering a situation where folks will have a lot of patience. He’ll face pressure to lead this team to a high seed and a deep run in the NCAA tournament. But it has never been more difficult to win than it is now. The whole sport is in flux.

Can choosing a former player as a head coach help Kentucky win again?

Maybe. The initial hire was greeted with criticism and skepticism. Kentucky pursued UConn’s Dan Hurley, Alabama’s Nate Oats and Baylor’s Scott Drew before hiring Pope, who won a national title as a player at Kentucky in 1996.

Within 48 hours, however, Pope had gained a lot of fan support. His ties to the school will help him attract the NIL cash to compete for top players, though his ability to attract the right players and assemble a group that’s built to win in March will be a tremendous challenge.

His ties to the school might buy him some grace, but they won’t save him if he struggles to win big. This is not a rebuilding effort.

Is this still the best job in men’s college basketball?

It’s still one of the best jobs in men’s college basketball, along with Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and UConn. The legacies, the national attention, the historic edge in recruiting and the resources are all advantages for those schools.

At its best, Kentucky is a job with incomparable fan support and buzz. The Wildcats’ first-round loss to Oakland in the 2023 NCAA tournament drew 3.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched first-round game in men’s basketball since 2019. As Calipari learned, it’s also a tough job when things are less fortuitous. And the gap between those top jobs and other legit jobs in the game (think Baylor, Alabama, Iowa State and other teams with recent successful runs) is not as wide as it once was because so many schools are willing to pay top salaries for good coaches. — Myron Medcalf

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