Kentucky football notebook: For ex-Cats and new assistant football coaches, selling UK to recruits is 'personal'

Herald-Leader Staff WriterDecember 22, 2012 

When Neal Brown goes out recruiting within Kentucky, he has one simple message: "Come be a hero."

The new UK offensive coordinator talks to recruits about home-grown talent like star quarterbacks Tim Couch and Andre Woodson, who have become heroes around the Commonwealth.

But really as he discusses staying home and being a "hero," Brown easily could be talking about himself or two other new Cats' position coaches in Chad Scott or John Schlarman and why they wanted to come home again. They have a chance to be heroes, too, if they can help turn around the football program.

All three played for Kentucky, all three have worn the interlocking "UK" and understand what it means to their state. They were key gets for new Coach Mark Stoops' coaching staff.

"It was important to me," Stoops said when asked about hiring guys with Kentucky connections. "I'll rely on those guys."

It was important to Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, too.

"We don't lose the ability to connect to our Kentucky guys, which is good, which is really good," Barnhart said in a sit-down interview this week with the Herald-Leader's John Clay and The Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker.

Barnhart also relayed the story of running into Schlarman, a former All-Southeastern Conference offensive guard, over at the football facilities recently.

"I couldn't tell you how excited he was to be back," Barnhart said of UK's new offensive line coach. "He was fired up."

At his first news conference this week, Brown spoke with wide eyes and an even wider smile about putting on Kentucky gear for the first time in nearly a decade to go out recruiting on Tuesday.

"When I put that on — this is an easy sell for me," he explained. "This is a great place to go to school. The fan base is incredible. So it's a really easy sell for me, and when I put that back on, it felt like home."

Brown, a Danville native and a life-long fan, lamented that Kentucky didn't have a football game this weekend.

"The excitement in the Big Blue Nation about football is at an all-time high," he said. "I really believe that. This state and this university are special to me. This isn't just another job for me. This is personal."

On second thought ...

As Neal Brown waxed poetic about coming home (at Christmas time, no less), he also talked about the potential pitfalls should success not come quickly for Kentucky.

His most recent stop was as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, which is 16 hours away from Kentucky.

That helped insulate his extended family from the criticism that comes as part of the job description for college football coaches.

Brown said when talks with UK got serious, he spoke with both his family and his wife's family about what their coming home means for their families.

"This is a big-dollar business, and there's a lot of pressure," he said. "They were isolated from that when I was away. Now it's going to be at the front door."

Bowl prep

D.J. Eliot was not made available to the media this week like his offensive coordinating counterpart Brown because Eliot is in Tallahassee for a couple of weeks helping Florida State prepare for the Orange Bowl.

Eliot stayed in Lexington and helped with recruiting until the dead period started and then headed south with Mark Stoops' blessing.

"He's going to be there through the bowl game," Stoops said of Eliot. "We both helped and we're going to do that. Florida State has been good to both of us and we care a great deal about that program and those players. He wants to go down there and finish it up right."

Speaking of Eliot, Stoops was asked this week at his first official news conference how hands-on he plans to be with the defense at Kentucky.

Jimbo Fisher, their former boss at Florida State, did much of the play calling offensively for the Seminoles. Does Stoops have a similar plan as a head coach?

No.

"I've learned real quick in these last two and half weeks ... that I can tell that my role has changed drastically," he said.

"It would be impossible for me to run the defense the way it needs to be run with me being a head coach," Stoops added. "So Coach Eliot will run that. I have 100 percent confidence in him and he knows what I want and the way we do things together. So it will be him running the defense."

Other quotes of note

As you could probably guess, there's never enough time or space to get every interesting tidbit from a news conference into a story in the paper. There were a couple of fun things to come out of Stoops' most recent media gathering. Here you go:

Stoops was asked about house shopping in the Bluegrass as he also settles in at the football offices. But the coach said he won't have much of a say in all that, deferring instead to wife Chantel.

"I'm just getting a general feel for Lexington," he said. "I'll have a general idea of the neighborhoods and areas, but my wife handles all that. I pick the job, she picks the house."

The big personality of basketball coach John Calipari, coupled with the commonwealth's big passion for all things UK basketball might have scared off some potential football coaches, but not Stoops.

"Coach Cal has been tremendous," the football coach said. "I've had a few visits with him, I got an opportunity to watch them practice, sit in on one of his meetings and just get a chance to spend a little time with him. I'm looking forward to that relationship. How can you not embrace such a dynamic person and such a great program?"

Holiday greetings

Sometimes, holiday cards are about reconnecting with old family and friends. That seems to be the goal of a greeting card sent out to roughly 17,000 former and current football supporters this holiday season.

The card, featuring Stoops, wife Chantel and sons Will and Zack, was sent out to fans that have had football season tickets, said UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy.

It reads: "Happy Holidays from the Stoops Family" and has a UK logo at the bottom.

Phillips settling in

An "I'm sorry" phone call turned into a job opportunity for former Cats coach Joker Phillips.

According to a story in the Gainesville Sun this past week, Gators Coach Will Muschamp called Phillips to console him and realized that the former wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator might be a good fit in Florida.

"I called him and just told him I was thinking about him," Muschamp said. "As I continued to talk and think through it, I thought he would fit, if that's what he wanted to do. You never know how someone will respond in those situations, whether they want to take a year off, or they want to get away for a little bit. I asked him point blank, 'Would you be interested in coaching the Gators?' He said. 'I would, absolutely.' So, pretty easy."

Phillips will not coach wide receivers in the Gators' bowl game against Louisville, Muschamp said.

But Phillips has been busy since he got to Gainesville.

Muschamp told the media that he had no worries about having a former head coach now as a position coach on his staff.

"That says something about him as a person," Muschamp said. "He just wants to be a football coach and affect young people's lives in a very positive way."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Email: jsmith3@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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