LEXINGTON, Ky. — The University of Memphis has given Kentucky permission to speak to coach John Calipari about the Wildcats’ head coaching position.

Athletic director R.C. Johnson said in a statement Monday that Calipari could meet with Kentucky representatives, but stressed Memphis will do whatever it can to retain the coach.

The school fired Billy Gillispie Friday after two seasons.

The Commercial Appeal newspaper reported on its Web site that Calipari met with his players Monday morning.

Calipari just concluded his ninth season at Memphis and has a 137-14 record over the past four seasons in which the Tigers were the only team to earn either a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. He guided Memphis to a national runner-up finish last season, and the Tigers (33-4) were ousted in the West Regional semifinal on Thursday night.

He currently has the top-rated recruiting class in the country headed to Memphis, but his latest recruit 6-foot-10 DeMarcus Cousins committed verbally within the past month and could follow Calipari to Kentucky if the coach leaves.

Landing Calipari won’t be cheap. He has four years left on his contract paying him $2.35 million annually. He also has an annuity averaging $1 million over the deal through 2013.

Calipari would seem to have the charisma to match Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was named the Wildcats coach 20 years ago, winning a national championship in eight seasons at Kentucky.

Pitino and Calipari used to spar when the Cardinals battled the Tigers in Conference USA. Having two of the nation’s most high-profile coaches 70 miles apart could add another layer to one of the country’s most bitter rivalries.

The two met in the 1996 Final Four when Pitino was at Kentucky and Calipari was at Massachusetts. The Wildcats won 81-74 on their way to a sixth national championship.

Pitino left for the NBA a year later, and Kentucky has been in steady — if small — decline ever since.