Mark Story: Barnhart has difficult decision to make on Joker Phillips' future

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 15, 2012 

Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart watched as No. 6 South Carolina defeated Kentucky 38-17 on Saturday. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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After Kentucky's less-than-three-quarters humbling at Arkansas, a consensus seems to be forming that it should now be an easy call for Mitch Barnhart to pull the plug on Joker Phillips.

For the Kentucky athletics director, such a decision is apt to be anything but easy.

Even with 2012's plunging attendance in Commonwealth Stadium, the vibe I've felt around UK this fall is that Barnhart and Co. are looking for a reason to retain the embattled Phillips (12-20).

However, losing at home to a Sun Belt Conference team (albeit a good one) and getting obliterated 49-7 in a conference game that was called in the third quarter because of bad weather has to make it difficult for Kentucky to stand by its man.

Still, this is not a simple scenario for Barnhart.

He and Phillips are genuinely close. Speaking the Thursday before UK's home opener, Barnhart referred to Joker as "a guy I dearly love."

At his Monday news conference, Phillips said "one thing Mitch and I are is friends. That's more important to me than anything on the business side."

Yet if Kentucky's 1-6 slog of a season so far doesn't show more promise soon, Barnhart might find himself with a head vs. heart decision regarding Phillips.

The injury decimation that has beset UK and Phillips this year at least provides a rationale for giving the coach a re-do in 2013 on a make-or-break season.

But the Kentucky fan base is clamoring for a change. At some point, does the environment become so toxic that Phillips wouldn't really have a chance to succeed even if retained for a fourth season next fall?

If the decision is made to change Kentucky football coaches, there is no obvious next step.

The "we need a big-name coach" segment of the UK fan base seems to think that a Chris Petersen or Nick Saban or Tony Dungy could be lured to Lexington — to coach a team that has had seven winning conference records in 79 seasons of SEC football — merely by writing a big check.

There is one "big name coach" who is available, of course. Bobby Petrino carries more baggage (and I'm not even referring to his motorcycle exploits) than Delta Airlines when it comes to, let's say, less than honorable comportment.

Odds of UK landing a "big name" that really moves the buzz meter is scant.

So what then?

In my lifetime, the two Kentucky football coaches who both fielded competitive teams and did so without embarrassing the university with cheating scandals were Jerry Claiborne and Rich Brooks.

If UK were to seek out a similarly well-seasoned pro now, Barnhart could reach back to his time as an assistant AD at Tennessee and woo Phillip Fulmer or David Cutcliffe.

Fulmer, of course, led Tennessee to the 1998 national title before his program went stale a decade later and he was ousted. Cutcliffe, the former Volunteers assistant, has done quality work as head man at two places, Mississippi and now Duke, that are as difficult (if not more so) to win at as Kentucky.

Yet neither of those hires, however solid, would excite a dispirited fan base.

Kentucky could decide to go for an up-and-comer.

Former Hal Mumme aide Sonny Dykes has Louisiana Tech off to a 5-1 start, the one defeat coming Saturday in a 59-57 shootout with Texas A&M. But does UK want to go back to pinball football?

Kentucky saw up close and personal what a good coaching job Willie Taggart has done at Western Kentucky, but would UK make a major coaching hire from in the state? Would Taggart, with his ties to the Harbaugh family coaching tree, be able to get a better job than Kentucky, anyway?

If Kentucky really wanted to make an aggressive hire, it could look at Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown. The ex-UK wide receiver (1998-2000) from Boyle County is running an offense that is averaging 40.7 points and 537 yards a game for a 5-1 team. After so many criticized Kentucky for hiring in Phillips someone with no head coaching experience, could UK really do the same thing in his successor?

Just to make things even more challenging for Barnhart if UK opts for a change, it now looks as if the Auburn and Tennessee head coaching jobs could be open after this season.

If that happens, it pushes Kentucky down to a distant third in terms of "vacancy desirability" in the SEC alone.

For Mitch Barnhart, making the decision to fire Joker Phillips will not be easy.

Finding a way to replace him that will animate the Kentucky fan base could be even more difficult.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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