By Dick Gabriel
Names of potential replacements for Joker Phillips had been circulating since last summer. Not many people predicted a winning season for Kentucky this year and Phillips’ harshest critics wanted him gone. Now that they have their wish, the speculation on who will move into the biggest office at the Nutter Field House is at full throttle.
While some fans float the names of football people who have a high profile and likely zero interest in the job (see Gruden, Jon) most reach for potential candidates with ties to UK, for some reason. Mike Leach, Neal Brown, Sonny Dykes, Brent Pease – all of them spent time in Lexington either playing or coaching for Hal Mumme.
It’s interesting: The Big Blue Nation couldn’t get rid of Mumme fast enough, demanding his ouster even before his 2-9 season in 2000 was over, just a year removed from back-to-back bowl trips.
And now, in the eyes of many, Hal Mumme Lite is the answer.
And maybe it is. On the other hand, proven veterans of the SEC such as Phil Fulmer, David Cutcliffe and Tommy Tuberville are on a lot of lists. Each has his merits, but there could be as many as three other jobs open in the conference when the regular season concludes (Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee). Mitch Barnhart will be competing with some oversized checkbooks when it comes to SEC football coaching searches.
Some are in favor of hiring a scoundrel. Bobby Petrino? Jim Tressel? All is, or will be, forgiven, if you can deliver a winner along with whatever shame tags along.
There are intriguing names as well, including one that popped to my mind immediately: Gus Malzahn, who had a good reputation at Auburn even before he coordinated the offense on the Tigers’ national championship team. He’s currently the head coach at Arkansas State.
Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader mentioned Dirk Koetter, who spent 12 years as a college offensive coordinator before eight seasons as a head coach – three at Boise State, five at Arizona State. He’s been an NFL assistant for the past six seasons, currently the offensive coordinator for the undefeated Atlanta Falcons.
And in his blog at Kentucky.com, John Clay writes about Mike MacIntyre, the head coach at San Jose State and a disciple of David Cutcliffe and Bill Parcells, two coaches Barnhart admires. The UK AD worked with Cutcliffe at Tennessee and tried to hire Parcells for the Kentucky job.
Barnhart will have to look beyond simple wins and losses when he makes his second hire of a head football coach at Kentucky (he inherited Guy Morriss, and the move to make Phillips head-coach-in-waiting came from Rich Brooks, via Lee Todd).
And while most of the discussion of the new head coach involves offensive philosophy, it’s important to remember that poor defense was just as responsible as inept offense for the failure of the 2012 Wildcats (maybe more so). We were assured that the veterans on the defensive front would provide a solid base, and that even though all four starting linebackers were new, their level of athleticism would help speed their progress.
And yes, the defense suffered injuries, too. But all year long, Phillips kept saying, “We have to get people lined up right” in response to questions about defensive breakdowns.
So Kentucky’s next coach needs to be as fully committed to solid defense as he might be to selling tickets with a gimmicky offense.
What the Nation needs to realize is, there is no road map to success in this process. If there were, Kentucky wouldn’t be a sad sack when it comes to SEC football. Since Bear Bryant left, UK has taken virtually every approach when it has come to hiring a new head coach:
NFL Assistant – Blanton Collier. Eight years as head coach at UK; inexplicably fired with a winning record (41-36-3); returned to pro football and went on to a successful career as a head coach.
Coaching Tree – Charlie Bradshaw. An assistant first under Collier at Kentucky, then Bryant at Alabama, Bradshaw tried to emulate Bryant’s tough-guy tactics as head coach of the Wildcats, but went wildly overboard, especially in 1962 when mass defections left him with the Thin Thirty team. Joker Phillips also would fit into the “Coaching Tree” category, having worked at Kentucky under both Bill Curry and Brooks.
Hot Coordinator – John Ray. The defensive coordinator for Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship team, he won 10 games in four years at UK, all the while lobbying for a new stadium. UK complied, but then ran off Ray.
Bright, Young Mind – Fran Curci. Had success at U of Tampa and U of Miami before coming to Lexington (he left Miami because he believed it a pro town, and that college football would never be successful. UK grad Howard Schnellenberger proved him wrong). Curci won big in Lexington before the NCAA shut him down.
Hal Mumme would fit into this category as well, moving up from the Division II level. He likewise had success before he was fired amid a flurry of NCAA sanctions.
Big Name Coach – Bill Curry. You can roll your eyes, and rightfully so, given his won-loss record at Kentucky. But Curry was the current national Coach of the Year when he left Alabama for UK. A CEO-type of head coach, Curry didn’t get his staff and recruiting squared away until it was too late. He also changed offensive schemes five times in six years.
Brooks was a big-name coach as well, although he had fallen off the football radar. Oregon football today is huge and fun and exciting, but anybody associated with the Ducks will tell you it might not have happened were it not for Brooks, who changed the program from laughingstock to Pac-10 champion, which now plays on Rich Brooks Field.
Having spent time in the NFL as an assistant, he left Oregon and went back to the league as a head coach. Brooks’ St. Louis Rams team was making progress until his starting quarterback went down, and he was eventually fired (sound familiar?) He spent four years as defensive coordinator in Atlanta before stepping down, with an eye on returning to college football.
Barnhart hired Brooks to the shock and dismay of Kentucky fans. It turned out to be an outstanding hire. The Kentucky AD needs to make another one.
There is precious little room for error. And there is no sure road map to success.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM. )