Brooks changed landscape for coaches

When Indiana named Kelvin Sampson its new basketball coach in the spring of 2006, a Louisville sports columnist labeled it a "Rich Brooks hire."

It was not a compliment.

For the first 3½ years that Brooks labored as Kentucky's football coach, his name was a metaphor in these parts for "terrible coaching hire."

Which is why Brooks must get a deep chuckle at what his name stands for now.

Two-and-a-half years and three bowl wins later, "Rich Brooks" is now the patron saint of struggling coaches, the living admonishment about rendering final judgment on a coach too soon.

In a public speaking engagement in Louisville last year, Rick Pitino made a pitch to U of L fans to show more patience with embattled Cardinals football coach Steve Kragthorpe.

The example Pitino cited?

Rich Brooks at Kentucky.

In Thursday's Lexington Herald-Leader, my colleague John Clay correctly pointed out that second-year Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie deserves more time before anyone makes a lasting judgment of his tenure — and used Brooks as an example.

Has any sports figure in our state ever undergone a more dramatic, positive change in public perception than Brooks? For all of us, sports fans and media alike, the transformation offers lessons.

1. No matter how flawed the search for a coach, it doesn't mean the person hired can't or won't succeed.

When Guy Morriss unexpectedly left Lexington in 2002, with Kentucky football headed toward the full impact of NCAA sanctions, Mitch Barnhart had a rough ride in his first major coaching quest as UK AD.

The search that led to Rich Brooks was a meandering mess, but it turns out that didn't ultimately matter because it did yield a coach who has done a good job.

Moral: In coaching hires, process matters only if it leads to poor competitive performance.

2. Early coaching mistakes can be surmounted.

In his first year as Kentucky coach, Brooks inherited a uniquely talented, 300-pound shotgun passer of a quarterback, Jared Lorenzen, as well as a veteran offensive line and receiving corps.

What he did not inherit was any proven running back.

In spite of that, Brooks and staff tried to install the Kansas State multiple offense.

It would have been hard to find an offense less suited to the talent UK had on its roster. That decision denied a popular senior class (think Lorenzen, Derek Abney et al.) of their best chance to succeed.

Moral: That early miscue did not prove fatal.

After another year of offensive futility in 2004, Barnhart forced a change in offensive coordinators on a reluctant and always-loyal-to-his-staff Brooks.

That switch and the willingness of the new offensive coordinator, Joker Phillips, to tailor his offense to the strengths of the players on his roster set the table for Brooks' subsequent success.

3. In all but rare cases, coaches deserve at least four years.

There are exceptions that justify not giving a new coach that long a term.

Any kind of NCAA trouble or off-the-floor scandal can justify a quick hook. A complete competitive meltdown (a 1-11 football season or a 7-25 basketball year) could merit the same.

Moral: Absent such scenarios, coaches deserve a chance to at least coach one team made up solely of their own recruits.

Of course, there are no guarantees that patience will ultimately pay.

In regard to Louisville, I fret that Kragthorpe, with his yearly changes at coordinator, is doing a better imitation of Bill Curry's ill-fated Kentucky football coaching tenure than that of Brooks.

Here in Lexington, I worry that Gillispie — with his sarcastic public persona and his penchant for, let's say, counter-intuitive, in-game coaching moves — is not a good "fit" for the hyper-scrutinized position of Kentucky basketball coach.

Still, the new meaning of the metaphor "Rich Brooks" reminds us that it can be folly to write off a coach too quickly.

For the old man, that fact must be quite a kick.