Sorting Through The UK Football Coach Situation

09/18/2012 12:21 AM

You could say that as soon as Kawaun Jakes waltzed into the end zone for the game-winning two-point conversion Saturday night, fans started calling for Joker Phillips’ head, but that probably wouldn’t be entirely true. Fans – at least a portion – have been hoping for a coaching change as far back as the Compass Bowl loss to Pittsburgh in 2011 and waiting for the final straw to break the camel’s back. Saturday’s home loss to Western Kentucky appears to have been that straw as the Joker Phillips era hit rock-bottom in loss to an in-state Sun Belt team. The tension was clear in the postgame press conference as Joker pounded the table for emphasis on his points and Willie Taggart crowed on the field that “The WKU red is the new blue in Kentucky. How about that!” The record books will show that Kentucky lost the game, but Joker Phillips took the biggest L of all.

Now, there’s a case to be made that Joker should bear the entire brunt of the loss to Western Kentucky. After all, he didn’t throw the interceptions that put them in a giant first half hole. He didn’t drop the passes or commit the penalties. In fact, in three games, he’s shown a more aggressive style on the field and become the assertive voice of a team that’s as close as any in recent memory. But, unfortunately, those are things that rarely buy you time in the third year of a regime where the wins aren’t coming nearly as often as they did under your predecessor. And when ticket sales are at a record-low and fans are calling for your head, it seems almost irrelevant.

So for Kentucky fans, the question now isn’t necessarily “if” Joker Phillips will be replaced. It’s really just about “when” and “with who”. The “when” isn’t all that complicated. Joker Phillips is going to be given every opportunity to rectify the situation over the next nine games. Mitch Barnhart, like all true fans, wants the football team to bounce back and win football games down the stretch. The schedule makes it brutally difficult, especially considering the 1-2 start in non-conference games, but the opportunity will be there because Joker is not going to be fired mid-season. It’s not Barnhart’s style and, more importantly, Joker Phillips has earned the right to fight for his job down the stretch and, if he fails to do so, exit gracefully at the end of the year. He’s spent 23 years – nearly half his life – involved in the University of Kentucky football program and no matter what the record in the next nine games, deserves the dignity of finishing out the season. But the “with who” part of the equation becomes much more debatable and, potentially, far more depressing.

For as long as UK has been playing football, there’s been a romantic notion that the school can hire anyone they want if the administration would just stop being conservative with their checkbook and their candidates. Following the Western Kentucky game, I must have had 20 people say something to the effect of “just pay a big-name coach to take the job”. It’s a nice thought, but a gross over-simplification of the position of Kentucky head football coach. You can offer all the money in the world – and Mitch Barnhart told KSTV over the summer he was willing to do so – but it doesn’t change the fact that the UK job is, arguably, the least desirable in all of college football. And even if a coach is worthy of that kind of coin, plenty of better programs will be lined up and ready to hand it over, with at least Arkanasas and Tennessee being among them this season.

There’s a fine line between being a stepping stone job and an absolute dead-end and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that UK is the latter at the moment. The facilities are awful, the in-state recruiting is inconsistent at best and you’re going to get punched in the groin eight weeks a year right from the start. The last four hires have been a D-II coach that was fired, an assistant who bolted the first chance he got, a retired coach who retired again and a young, up-and-coming assistant who appears to be headed for termination as well. Kentucky even went the route of opening the checkbook and stealing a coach from Alabama in 1990 and Bill Curry was shown the door in 1996 after seven consecutive non-winning seasons. His next coaching job came 12 years later at Georgia State, where they were just starting their program. Not exactly the type of record that has coaches fighting for an office at the Nutter Training Facility.

Taking on the challenge of UK football requires either desperation or a massive ego – or maybe a little of both. No one is going to willingly stake their professional life on the football program in Lexington unless they’re either out of options or they’re so confident in their own abilities that they’ll ignore far better positions for a chance to be the savior of a football program where basketball is and always will be the first concern of the majority of fans.

So who is desperate enough to take on that sort of challenge? Certainly not either of the Grudens or Bill Cowher or any of the other NFL coaches some fans have suggested. If you’ve turned down the Dallas Cowboys, you’re probably going to turn down the Kentucky Wildcats. There’s no real concrete scientific proof in that theory, but I think it’s safe to say it’s a pretty damn good hypothesis. So stop. Please.

What about the sexy college assistant coaches du jour? Kirby Smart at Alabama seems to be the one mentioned the most. I can’t imagine that a man that is only 36-years old and leads one of the most imposing college defenses of the last 20 years is so hard-up on job offers that he’s going to take the UK job and potentially be out of work and toxic at 40. That’d be like Brad Pitt packing it in on Angelina and their family and popping up on the next season of “Here Come’s Honey Boo Boo”. The guy has said he wants to be a head coach. But guess what? If you can find it on Google, so can every athletic director in the country. And, sadly, virtually all of them have more to offer than Kentucky. The same goes for Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, a 38-year old offensive wiz, and Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley. Those three guys will be getting the pick of the best jobs available over the next two years.

The most mentioned names, though, are two guys who are every bit of desperate right now. If you’ve spent five minutes talking UK football with anyone, you’ve heard Bobby Petrino rumored as a potential UK coach. He has the SEC background, he’s regarded as a great offensive mind and he has ties to Kentucky after coaching in Louisville. After falling apart in front of the entire nation, Petrino would certainly qualify as desperate. I’m still not certain that other schools with more to offer from a competitive standpoint won’t come calling this off-season, but even if they don’t, you can pretty much bank on Petrino not being an option for UK. Mitch Barnhart has been accused of being a lot of things by UK fans, but there’s no question that he’s a man of faith that puts the utmost importance on values and doing things with class. Petrino has failed miserably, not just at Arkansas, in representing himself anywhere close to what Mitch wants out of his head coach. And with this hiring likely to be his last, he’s very aware of how it will affect his legacy as an athletic director. If he’s going to fail, it will almost certainly be with someone he believes in. There’s absolutely no way he stakes his professional reputation and, potentially, his legacy as UK’s athletic director on someone he cannot trust or respect. He’s just not that kind of guy. I have no doubt that Petrino will be a head coach next season, but I’d be nothing short of shocked if it was at Kentucky.

The other fan favorite that comes with a heavy stench of desperation is former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who currently serves as the Vice President of Strategic Engagement at the University of Akron. Aside from having a dreadfully mismatched style for the pieces UK has in place already, Tressel has a show-cause through 2017 and would have to sit out the first five games of the season. Yes, he’s toxic in every sense of the word. There’s no situation where the school woudl want to get involved with that mess, especially given their past with the NCAA infractions committee, and essentially give the NCAA a reason to set up semi-permanent housing on UK’s campus. That’s bad for everyone involved. The guy has another four or five years of strategic engagement in his future.

As far as the guys who have the type of ego to take on the challenge that is UK football, I’ve seen Western Kentucky head coach Willie Taggart and Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn being tossed around by fans. Both guys are excellent coaches and certainly have the type of confidence that would welcome the uphill battle in Lexington. Taggart has ties to the state and win under his belt at Commonwealth Stadium (still sucks), but you have to assume he’ll have better offers and, if not, how willing he would be to leave his alma mater to essentially start all over like he did in Bowling Green three years ago. Malzahn has the sort of bravado that would probably make a chance at SEC redemption intriguing, but is UK the best he can do? And he’s still a guy that was coaching high school six years ago and has a history of not getting along with others.

So who is a realisitic possibility to coach UK’s football team next season? More importantly, is there a guy available that has what it takes to help the Cats take a step forward as a football program? That’s the million dollar question and it’s one that Mitch Barnhart has most likely already been looking into. The fear for every UK fan, though, should be that no such person actually exists and that if a move is made to get rid of Joker Phillips, the program will be different, but not necessarily better. Calls were made last season to some of the hot young coaching names and literally not a single person expressed interest. So if you’re among the fans who look to a potential coaching change with excitement and possibility, I envy you in the in every sense of the word. For you, losing to Western Kentucky was when you felt the most disrespected as a UK fan. To me, I’m terrified that’s still yet to come.


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