Mark Story: Five qualities a football coach needs to succeed at UK

November 12, 2012 

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Maxwell Smith (11) threw downfield, as UK played Western Kentucky University on Saturday September 15, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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Since Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced two Sundays ago that Joker Phillips will be removed as Kentucky head football coach, the commonwealth has been engulfed in debating what qualities a coach needs to win at UK.

Even Phillips has opinions. At what will be his next-to-last weekly news conference as Kentucky head man, Phillips ruminated Monday on what it will take for the next UK head man to succeed — an upgraded Commonwealth Stadium, a stellar quarterback and, mostly, time.

"He needs to get five to six, seven years," Phillips said. "It takes that long, especially here at Kentucky."

I, too, have my ideas on what a coach needs to survive at Kentucky, a school that has not had a head man leave with a winning overall record since Blanton Collier in 1961. Here is my attempt to match the qualities needed to turn UK football around with the possible coaching candidates who possess the traits.

1.) A style of play that allows Kentucky to negate a disadvantage in talent.

When you are Kentucky competing in a league in which your rivals have the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas as home-state recruiting bases, you need a way to play that both allows you to succeed against more physically gifted foes and provides a recruiting incentive for out-of-state recruits to come here.

Which is why I think UK needs a coach who employs a pass-heavy offense. The point is not that losing 52-40 is better than losing 10-6. The point is that, when recruiting for Kentucky, there's a better chance of building a team that can win 52-40 than 10-6.

Coaches who qualify under this criteria: Sonny Dykes, Neal Brown, Mike Leach, Bobby Petrino, Kliff Kingsbury.

2.) An out-of-state recruiting base.

When Louisville hired Charlie Strong off the staff at Florida, it also got his recruiting connections in the Sunshine State. UK needs a coach with a similar "go-to place" to get talent.

Coaches who qualify under this criteria: Sonny Dykes (Texas), Neal Brown (Texas, Alabama), Mike Leach (Texas), Kliff Kingsbury (Texas).

3.) A proven ability to win in tough football situations.

Kentucky has won as many as eight games in a regular season all of three times since 1953. So a coach who has already shown an ability to succeed in situations where the odds are stacked against winning has a quality UK should favor.

Coaches who qualify under this criteria: David Cutcliffe (Duke, Mississippi), Mike Leach (Texas Tech), Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech), Mike MacIntyre (San Jose State).

4.) An up-and-coming star

In my lifetime, the two UK football coaches who both fielded competitive teams and did so without embarrassing the university with off-the-field scandals were the well-seasoned Jerry Claiborne and Rich Brooks. If UK announces that it has hired Phillip Fulmer or David Cutcliffe or Tommy Tuberville this time around, I won't be critical.

But the history of Claiborne and Brooks also suggests such a hire is the pathway to respectability, not a major breakthrough.

In my view, Kentucky's best chance to break free from five decades of football mediocrity is to try to hire "the next great coach" on his way up and catch a rising star.

Coaches who qualify under this criteria: Neal Brown, Kliff Kingsbury, Sonny Dykes.

5.) Honor

Which brings us to Bobby Petrino. I could overlook his Arkansas motorcycle escapades if that were an isolated case of dishonesty.

It's not.

In his time as Louisville head man, Bobby P. had a secret flirtation with Auburn behind the back of not one, but two men (U of L AD Tom Jurich and then-Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville) who had hired him. After Jurich shielded Petrino from the fall out of his Auburn dalliance, Petrino repaid him by going behind the AD's back again to flirt with LSU.

At U of L, Petrino blindsided an instate recruit, Brad Durham, by pulling a scholarship offer out from under the player months after he had committed.

With the Atlanta Falcons, Petrino disappeared during the season only to turn up on ESPN calling the hogs after taking the Arkansas job.

If UK actually gives Petrino another opportunity, there's half a chance the coach would reward Kentucky by leaving some year to take the Tennessee job — during the week of the UK-UT game.

Coach who does not qualify under the honor criteria: Bobby Petrino.

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

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