The Kentucky defensive players have spent much of the past three weeks learning the Rick Minter Way, and the process hasn't always been a walk in the park.
Minter, who will run UK's defense as co-coordinator with Steve Brown, comes with a nice portfolio in hand, having coached top-notch units at South Carolina and Notre Dame. He also had a solid run as head coach at the University of Cincinnati from 1994-2003, and has been credited for laying the foundation for the program's recent success.
Minter is also old school, and his no-nonsense, in-your-face approach is a contrast to Brown's style.
With no time restrictions during the holiday break, Coach Joker Phillips said Minter has spent extra time getting to know his unit, and Phillips admitted that there's been some culture shock. "Some of them are sideways with it," Phillips said. "He's hard, he's stern, he's all ball. He doesn't have much of a life outside of football, and that's him telling me that. And he's demanding. A lot of them are having a hard time with it."
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Junior safety Winston Guy acknowledged that the players are still adjusting to the transition from Brown to Minter.
"We're all trying to get on the same page," Guy said. "It's a little different."
Senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin described Minter as "high-intensity."
"He gets on everybody," Lumpkin said. "He's preaching the same thing as Coach Brown, just louder. He's more of an aggressive coach. That's the only difference. He's saying the same things but he's just harder on us."
Minter's approach could be viewed by many as a breath of fresh air for a unit that appears to need a shot in the arm. Minter said he'll push whatever buttons he needs to push in order to improve UK's standing in the SEC defensive pecking order.
"My mandate is to improve the defense by whatever measure it takes to improve it," Minter said. "If that's more intensity, technique, fundamentals, attitude, work ethic, effort, scheme, whatever. There's no secret that we've got to raise the bar. I'm on the same page with Coach Phillips. For us to reach the heights we want in the SEC, we've got to get better on defense. I've always believed that if you want to go somewhere that you've never been, you've got to be willing to do something that you've never done. That's what we're trying to sell."
The current UK players haven't had to adapt to a lot of changes, as former coach Rich Brooks usually kept it in the family. When Ron Hudson, Brooks' original offensive coordinator, resigned, Phillips was promoted from receivers coach and recruiting coordinator to take his place, then stepped in for Brooks when he retired. Brown replaced Brooks' original defensive coordinator, Mike Archer, and coached the defense for four seasons before giving way to Minter, who's not part of the Brooks' coaching tree but is a longtime favorite of Phillips, who coached under him at Cincinnati.
In fairness, Minter was thrown in a tough spot. He's having to take over for Brown, who is still on staff and is popular with the players, less than a month before the BBVA Compass Bowl. And Brooks faced plenty of resistance from some of Guy Morriss' veteran leftovers when he first took over before eventually getting everybody on board. But Guy said it's up to the players to conform to Minter, not vice versa.
"We've got to be coachable," Guy said. "You have to listen to what he's saying and not how he's saying it. If you listen to how he says it you can get frustrated and want to mouth off and be disrespectful. I know he's new, but you've got to respect the guy. We've just got to shut up and learn. You can't complain about what's new. Coach Phillips brought him here for a reason, and that's to help us be a better defense. If you're not on board, you're not going to get playing time, so complaining doesn't really do any good."
Lumpkin only has one more week of working with Minter, but said the remaining players have to leave egos and hurt feelings at the door. "If you've played this game long enough, you'll have a coach who gets in your face and is real aggressive," Lumpkin said. "You just can't take it personal. You just have to say 'Yes sir.' You might get mad, but you can't let that affect your playing style. Besides, if he stops yelling at you, that means he's done with you. As long as a coach is yelling at you, you're good, but if he starts ignoring you, that's a bad sign."
Minter has hinted at the possibility of eventually moving to a 3-4 scheme but said he won't try and re-invent the wheel for the bowl game. For the Kentucky fans who have been clamoring for an aggressive defensive approach. Minter said he plans on doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
"Every game is different," Minter said. "How you win that game might be different than how you win the next game. We might have to carry the burden 100 percent on defense one week and then totally count on the offense the next week. We want to do what our kids can do. As our talent improves, and our technique improves, we'll get more aggressive. I think in the long run, though, people won't say that we didn't try to be very aggressive."
Minter said he's going to do what he can to put Kentucky in the best position to shut down Pitt and get a win in the BBVA Compass Bowl while at the same time looking ahead to spring practice and the 2011 season.
"Two major things we hope to accomplish," he said. "Number one is send our seniors out a winner. They've been winners for a few years now, and we're teetering right on .500 going into this game. Secondly, we want to send the program into the winter on a high note and set the defense's new mantra in 2011. So it's about both winning in the present and moving your eyes forward a little bit."