John Clay: Kentucky made right hire, whether Petrino beats Stoops or not

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 28, 2013 

I don't care if Kentucky loses 42-0.

I don't care if Western Kentucky's Hilltoppers go crazy on the Cats on Saturday night in Nashville.

I don't care if Mark Stoops lays a complete and total egg in his first game as the Kentucky football coach.

(I doubt that he will, by the way.)

Let's say it here and now, two days before that 7 p.m. EDT kickoff at LP Field, long before the first final horn, I still think Kentucky did the right thing taking a pass on the king of the passing game, i.e. Bobby Petrino.

Two reasons.

No. 1: Headlines, you know those eye-catching summarizations that boil the pertinent information down to the catchiest of capsules.

If Petrino was the Kentucky coach, the headlines wouldn't be about the strides in recruiting and the "Air Raid" offense and the 50,000-strong at the spring game.

If Petrino was the Kentucky coach, the headlines wouldn't be about the Wildcats' fresh start as much as they would be about Petrino's restart.

No. 2: First games don't matter. Oh sure, they matter. They just don't matter to the degree where they are a crystal-clear predictor of future success.

For starters, this isn't Mark Stoops' team. Yes, he's the head coach. And yes, he has brought in some fresh faces for 2013.

The club's core, however, was recruited by the previous coach — he being Joker Phillips — and finished 2-10 last year and has won all of two SEC games in the last two seasons, including a big-fat zero last year.

Kentucky has a new coach for a reason.

Therefore there is a transition taking place, and transitions are tricky things.

If you work up the courage, ask Nick Saban about that. You know Saban, the coach who has won the last two national championships — three of the last four — and if you go by the AP pre-season poll is in a sweet spot for taking another one of the crystal football trophies back to Tuscaloosa.

Saban lost six games his first season at Alabama. One of those losses was to Louisiana-Monroe. Saban lost four games his first season in his previous college job at LSU. One of those four losses was to UAB.

Louisiana-Monroe is currently in the Sun Belt Conference with Western Kentucky, by the way. UAB is in Conference USA, the league Western joins next July.

Wait, there's more.

The history books say Vince Dooley lost 31-3 to Alabama in his first game as the head coach at Georgia. It was the first of Dooley's 77 losses, compared to his 201 wins.

Bear Bryant lost 13-3 to LSU in his first game as the coach at Alabama. Bryant recovered from that particular embarrassment just in time to win six national titles as the coach of the Crimson Tide.

Closer to home, Jerry Claiborne went 0-10-1 in his first season at Kentucky before guiding the Cats to back-to-back bowl games.

Meanwhile, Joker Phillips won his first game as UK's head coach, beating Louisville 23-16, and (sadly) we now know not only how that story turned out but that it was also played out before a sparse crowd of friends and family.

Reason 2 isn't an attempt to stack pre-emptive excuses in Stoops' favor as much as it is an attempt to place some perspective on Saturday's curtain-raiser.

And Reason 1 isn't a knock on Western for affording the disgraced Petrino a second chance. Different schools, different circumstances.

Having forged some initial success as an FBS team, Western should benefit from someone with name recognition who could punch the accelerator on the program's progress.

Having hit rock bottom, Kentucky needed a coach who would provide a new start with new headlines.

If Western made the right choice, so did UK.

Nothing that happens in one game — especially the first game — is going to change my mind about that.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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