(The following column appeared on WKYT.com in 2004, during Rich Brooks’ second season as head football coach at Kentucky.
The UK program was hip-deep in NCAA sanctions and Brooks was struggling. Not a popular choice to begin with, Brooks heard the critics demand that a “big name” coach be brought in to resurrect the program, much as they’re calling for one now.
Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier had been fired by the NFL’s Washington Redskins the year before, and hope-fueled speculation was gaining momentum that he would be UK’s next coach.
In fact, the ever-popular “He’s bought a horse farm” rumors had popped up, much as they did when Billy Donovan was “on his way” to take over the basketball program when Tubby Smith left town.
I decided to have some fun with the rumors and posted the following. You’ll see how dated it is by the references to the coaches and their respective programs of eight years ago).
I was talking to Steve Spurrier the other day in the frozen food section at Kroger’s. What is a guy like you doing here, buying frozen French bread pizza? I asked.
“A man’s gotta eat. Even a ‘Big Name’ coach,” he said with a wink.
Ah, the “Big Name” coach. The answer to Kentucky ’s football woes, according to at least a portion of the howling masses. But still, French bread pizza? Frozen, at that?
“Haven’t had a chance to lay in any groceries at my new horse farm in Woodford County ,” he said with a wink. And then he was gone.
It was another couple of days before I bumped into Spurrier again, waiting in line at Regal Cinema. Both of us were going to see “Friday Night Lights.” I’ve read the book, and spent two football seasons in Texas ; hence my curiosity. As for the coach --
“Maybe I can steal a play or two,” Spurrier said with a wink.
I asked him again about being a “Big Name” coach, and how he would turn things around here in Lexington. Spurrier laughed.
“Yeah, we’d get it done all right, but it’d take a while…”
Whoa. What do you mean? We’ve heard that stuff for years.
“Well,” the old ball coach said, “what a ‘Big Name’ coach does for you is bring the spotlight for a while, gets recruits interested, helps lay the groundwork for the future with young guys.”
But... but… they’re doing that now, I sputtered.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. Then darkness settled into the theater and the movie started. Two hours later, the lights came up, and he was gone.
We crossed paths again later that week at Joe Bologna’s restaurant. Spurrier said he’d heard so much about the pizza. And he couldn’t get over the size of the breadsticks.
Never mind that, I said. Is a BNC the answer?
“They already tried that,” Spurrier said with a smile. “That guy I used to beat by six or seven touchdowns -- Bill Curry. Wasn’t he the Coach of the Year when they hired him?”
Uh, yeah. Didn’t quite work out, though.
“Nope. He brought in the talent, but you can’t change offenses as often as you change your socks,” he said. Then he sat up straight. “Socks! Shoe Carnival’s having a sale! Two-for-one on tube socks!” And he was gone.
A day or two later, we met up again, this time at Wal-Mart. Spurrier was buying CO-2 cartridges for his paint ball gun. “Love me some paint ballin’,” he said with a wink.
So tell me, coach , I said firmly. Is this the job for you?
Spurrier grinned, and slowly shook his head. “Do you know WHY I’m a ‘Big Name’ coach?” he said.
Um, because you’ve been successful?
“That’s right. I’ve won me some ballgames, a national title, had a lot of success. And that’s what makes a coach a ‘Big Name.’ Wins. W’s. It’s that simple.
“You take a look at the top coaches in this country and most of ‘em have one thing in common – they’ve been at the same place for a while, and that’s only because they’re successful. One or two bad seasons, and they’re gone. Not everybody has the base Joe Paterno has.”
So, seven years ago, if Kentucky had come at you with the five million bucks some people say it should have, instead of hiring Hal Mumme –
“Florida would’ve given me five million and one,” he said. “Ain’t too many schools gonna let a Kentucky come in and buy their coach, unless they really want him out of there. And if that’s the case, he’s probably damaged goods, anyway.”
But what about the challenge of building something new? Isn’t that why you left for the NFL?
“Yep. But that was a step up. Something I’d always wanted to try. I didn’t git ‘er done in the League as a player. Thought I could do it as a coach. And in the NFL, you don’t have to recruit, worry about a player getting to class, listen to their mamas and daddies whine about playing time. You just show up, spend the owner’s money and coach football.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t git ‘er done there as a coach, either. So ‘NFL’ meant ‘Not For Long’ for the old ball coach,” he said with a wink. And then he was gone.
But he’d given me something to ponder: What ‘Big Name’ coach would leave his current situation and come to Kentucky, a place where football coaches go to die? A place that hasn’t known consistent quality for 50 years, a program scorched by NCAA sanctions, trying to compete in the toughest division in arguably the toughest football conference in America?
I pulled out my crayons and made a list, starting with the current AP Top 25:
1. Southern Cal -- Pete Carroll. No WAY.
2. Oklahoma – Bob Stoops. See above.
3. Miami -- Larry Coker. And leave South Beach?
4. Auburn -- Tommy Tuberville. Might have been available had the clandestine Petrino Affair not leaked out. Now coaching a national title contender.
5. Purdue -- Joe Tiller. Has the Boilermakers back in the national spotlight. And he’d give that up to come here?
6. Virginia -- Al Groh is trying to fight his way through the ACC with real student/athletes, and he’s winning a lot of the battles. Does he give all that up?
7. Florida St. -- Bobby Bowden. Next stop – the retirement recliner.
8. California -- Jeff Tedford. Already said “no thanks” to Mitch Barnhart.
9. Texas -- Mack Brown. Leaving UT football for UK would be like Tubby Smith leaving UK for Texas A&M hoops.
10. Wisconsin – Barry Alvarez. Has built Badgers into annual Big Ten contender. Would he bolt? Or wait for a better offer?
11. Utah -- Quick now. Name Utah’s coach. Guess he’s not a “Big Name.”
12. Georgia -- Mark Richt. Him leaving Athens makes as much sense as….
13. Tennessee -– Phil Fulmer leaving Knoxville.
14. Michigan -- Lloyd Carr. He’d come, right after Mack Brown turned it down.
15. Arizona St. -- see Utah.
16. Oklahoma St. -- see above.
17. West Virginia -- Rich Rodriguez. Building a nice foundation in Morgantown. Is his name big enough yet?
18. Louisville -- Yeah, right.
19. Minnesota -- Glen Mason. Breathed life into football at Kansas. Had the Golden Gophers ranked as high as 14th last week. And he’d want to start over here?
20. LSU -- Nick Saban. Future NFL head coaching timbre.
21. Boise St. -- Dan Hawkins is a hot prospect. Is he a future BNC? Or a future Hal Mumme? My guess is, the former, but he wouldn’t qualify right now, would he?
22. Florida -- Ron Zook. Could become available if the Gators don’t become mighty-mighty again. Would he excite anybody here?
23. Texas A&M -- Dennis Franchione fled Alabama for A&M, sort of the Bear Bryant-in-reverse route. No way he’s going to take the next step on that trail by coming to UK.
24. Southern Miss. -- Jeff Bower is a talented coach. But a Name? Not yet.
25. Ohio St. -- Jim Tressel coached his way out of Youngstown Stateand already has a national championship. Doubt if he even knows where Lexington is.
I thought I’d convinced myself but I just wasn’t certain. I was hoping I could bump into the man one more time and, sure enough, I pulled into a slot at the Parkette Drive-In. Who’s in the car right next to me?
“How ya doin?” Spurrier said. “Find any Big Name coaches yet who’d want this job?”
I showed him my list, and he nodded. “Looks about right. There’s some other guys with teams in and out of there, but I guess if you’re not Top 25 each week, you’re not big enough, right?”
Guess not. Anyway, what are you doing here at the Parkette? I asked him.
“Grabbin’ something on my way to the airport,” he said. “Goin’ down to North Carolina, to check on the place I just bought down there next to the golf course. Then I’m headin’ to Austin. Just bought me a ranch in Texas, too.”
Wow. But, Parkette?
“Hey, a guy’s gotta eat. Gotta keep my strength up if I’m ever gonna coach again. And wherever that is, I know, if I don’t win enough, I’ll be a Po’ Boy myself,” he said with a wink.
And then he was gone.
(Note: It’s surprising how many of the “big name” coaches at the Top 25 programs have, indeed, moved on – but that’s a topic for another day.
Incidentally – the head coach at #11 Utah back then? Urban Meyer, who had come to Salt Lake City from Bowling Green – hardly the cradle of coaches. Meyer, of course, went on to win two national championships at Florida before eventually moving to Ohio State.
The most bizarrely coincidental comment of all (and I don’t remember writing this) came in my assessment of the odds that Mack Brown would leave 9th-ranked Texas: “Leaving UT football for UK would be like Tubby Smith leaving UK for Texas A&M hoops.”
Three years later, Smith would bolt from Lexington, leaving the job for the A&M coach – Billy Gillispie.
He was a big-name coach, too.)