Mark Story: How much blame should Mitch Barnhart get for UK football decline?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 29, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

As Kentucky's long, slow, train wreck of a football season moves toward its final destination, my email in-box keeps receiving the same question:

Why isn't there more heat on Mitch Barnhart?

To state the obvious, anytime a football program that had enjoyed four straight winning seasons changes coaches and goes 1-8 (so far) in the third season of the new regime, the athletics director who hired the replacement head man deserves a share of the blame.

So as Joker Phillips' coaching tenure seems to have jumped the tracks, Barnhart, the UK Athletics Director who promoted him, bears responsibility for how the hire has worked out.

Still, a fair evaluation of Barnhart's overall impact on Kentucky football since ex-UK President Lee Todd hired him in 2002 is not nearly as negative as many in a frustrated UK fan base now wish to portray.

In 2003, when Barnhart settled on Rich Brooks after Baylor made incumbent UK head man Guy Morriss a multi-millionaire, the hire was widely panned (including by me).

At the time, Brooks was not a spring chicken at age 61. He was out of coaching, had a losing overall mark as a head coach in both college and the NFL, and had no meaningful ties to the state of Kentucky.

It looked like a bad hire.

Out of the gates, Brooks went 4-8, 2-9 and was 2-6 in his third season when Barnhart announced Kentucky was bringing the old coach back for a fourth year. Because the decision defied public opinion (at the time I wrote a rather clever column, I thought, mocking the move), it was a call that showed backbone.

Brooks proceeded to lead Kentucky to four straight bowl games in a stretch that included three wins over Louisville, two apiece over Georgia and Arkansas and one each against LSU, Auburn, Clemson and Florida State.

Sure, part of that four-year run of winning seasons owed both to the 12-game schedule and to soft non-conference foes, but so what? That's the system and Barnhart figured out a way to leverage it to Kentucky's advantage.

Ultimately, Barnhart's first two big football decisions at Kentucky — hiring Brooks and keeping him after three losing years — worked out.

The AD's third major football move was naming Phillips as head coach in waiting under Brooks after the 2007 season.

In real time, that looked like the right move.

After Kentucky's offense had been mostly stagnant for two seasons under then-coordinator Ron Hudson, Phillips took it over full-time in 2005 and, in three seasons, built one of the best attacks in UK history.

The 2007 offense with veteran stars Andre' Woodson, Keenan Burton, Rafael Little, Jacob Tamme and Steve Johnson averaged 36.5 points and 443.4 yards a game for an 8-5 team. As its architect, Phillips was a hot property.

Given Joker's success as a playcaller and the fact that he was considered the best recruiter on the Kentucky staff, it was little wonder that Brooks went to Barnhart and Todd with a plan designed to ensure Phillips stayed in Lexington.

The head coach in waiting concept was a hot fad in 2007, designed to ensure continuity on staffs with aging head men and to allow schools to keep assistants they perceived to have "big-chair" potential.

We know now the HCIW is usually a flawed scenario. It obviously failed to work at Kentucky. The lack of numbers in the upper classes on UK's current roster show that the bid to maintain recruiting momentum late in Brooks' tenure failed.

Even if UK were to finish this injury-ravaged year 1-11, there might be a case for retaining Phillips (12-22 in his third year) if Barnhart and UK President Eli Capilouto believe Kentucky is sitting on a winning season next year.

With its youth-laden depth chart, it appears to me that Kentucky is likely two years away from being a viable bowl contender.

To my way of thinking, the most fair criticism of Barnhart's tenure as it regards football is that Kentucky has not been able to generate financing for a major upgrade (more luxury suites, club seating, the recruiting room) of now-out-of-date Commonwealth Stadium.

Still, if Phillips has to be let go, that will make Barnhart 2-1 on his biggest football coaching decisions as UK AD.

You can say that, at a school with absolutely no football margin of error, you need perfect decisions at the AD level. The hard truth is, at UK, even that would be no guarantee of gridiron success.

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

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