Mark Story: UK football needs coach on rise, not a big name

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 26, 2012 

UK President Eli Capilouto, left, talked with athletic director Mitch Barnhart as UK defeated Western Kentucky on Sept. 1.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

A Kentucky football coaching search edition of America's smash game show, Truth or Fiction:

Item one: To win back a dispirited fan base and reinvigorate ticket sales in Commonwealth Stadium, it is imperative Mitch Barnhart hires a coach people are immediately excited over.

Verdict: Fiction.

It would be nice if Barnhart, UK's athletics director, could make a hire to replace Joker Phillips that juiced Cat fans. UK has not chosen a football coach the Kingdom of the Blue was pumped over since C.M. Newton wooed away Alabama's Bill Curry.

That was five Kentucky head football coaches ago.

It is now three-plus weeks since Phillips was fired, and the hard truth is there does not appear to be a coach UK can realistically attract that is going to be perceived as the much-longed-for "home-run hire."

(The segment of the fan base that has worked itself into a lather over UK being able to get a "bad character discount" and hire Bobby Petrino does not appear to realize that many other Kentucky fans are just as strongly opposed to selecting the scandal-plagued Bobby P).

In the long run, what will bring fans back to Commonwealth and keep them there is winning some football games.

As much ire as UK football fans are directing at an athletics director who has trouble "connecting" with the public, what Barnhart needs far more than a coach who can win the introductory press conference is one with both the plan and ability to succeed in what history says is one of the toughest coaching jobs in major-college sports.

Item Two: Having so many other major-college head football coaching positions open is a dagger to UK and its coaching search.

Verdict: Truth, but with one big potential caveat.

Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee have joined UK as having job openings in the SEC. From the other major conferences, there are already vacancies at Boston College and North Carolina State of the ACC, Purdue of the Big Ten and California and Colorado of the Pac-12.

You can make a pretty strong case that every one of the job openings listed above comes with a better chance to win than Kentucky.

That is not a promising environment for job candidates.

As for the caveat, there is one way those coaching vacancies could actually end up boosting UK football.

There are three schools Kentucky plays every year that it needs to beat regularly to have any hope of football success.

Instead, UK is 0-4 against Mississippi State under Dan Mullen, 0-2 against Vanderbilt under James Franklin, and 1-2 against Louisville under Charlie Strong.

If the coaching carousel were to stop with "bigger football schools," having lured Mullen away from MSU, Franklin from Vandy and/or Strong from U of L, that could be a huge long-term boost to Kentucky and its next head coach.

Item Three: Kentucky football is such a difficult job, prior head-coaching experience is a must.

Verdict: Fiction.

It is true that, in Phillips, UK is replacing a fired head coach who had never held the big chair until getting that opportunity here.

It's also correct that the two prior Kentucky head coaches from the past four decades who delivered both competitive football teams and no off-the-field embarrassments were Jerry Claiborne and Rich Brooks.

Both were well-seasoned head coaches before coming to Lexington.

But consider:

Mark Richt had never been a head coach before he went to Georgia — that's worked out.

Dan Mullen had never been a head coach before he went to Mississippi State — that's worked out.

James Franklin had never been a head coach before he went to Vanderbilt — that's worked out.

Charlie Strong had never been a head coach before he went to Louisville — that's worked out.

In a job in which the last nine Kentucky head coaches all left Lexington with losing records, it will take a coaching standout to make a meaningful difference.

UK's only chance to attract such a coach, in my view, is to catch a rising star on the way up.

Put another way, what if Kentucky had hired Urban Meyer at the point in his career when Bowling Green did?

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

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