UK Football

Big-name football coach rarely the answer in SEC

Kentucky's Joker Phillips is one of five Southeastern Conference coaches who are in their first head coaching job. Phillips finished 6-7 in his first season.
Kentucky's Joker Phillips is one of five Southeastern Conference coaches who are in their first head coaching job. Phillips finished 6-7 in his first season.

As oft happens during times of University of Kentucky pigskin distress, my e-mail box filled up this past week with messages stating UK will never be serious about college football until it hires a successful, big-name head coach.

Let's ponder that.

By that thesis, the University of Florida — with arguably the best college coaching job in these United States — is not serious about its football program.

When Urban Meyer resigned, the Gators chose Will Muschamp to replace him.

Muschamp has exactly zero head coaching experience.

By that thesis, the University of Georgia is not serious about its football program.

The current Bulldogs head man, Mark Richt, came to Athens in 2001 with not one day of college head coaching experience.

Richt has won two SEC championships and three SEC East titles.

By that thesis, Auburn is not serious about its football program.

When Gene Chizik hired on before the 2009 season, he brought a glowing 5-19 record from his two seasons as head man at Iowa State.

Not exactly a big name was he.

Yet it was Gene Chizik who hoisted the national championship trophy Monday night.

By that thesis, the University of Tennessee is not serious about its football program.

After ousting Phil Fulmer and being jilted by Lane Kiffin, the Volunteers turned to Derek Dooley.

That was not exactly a massive national following Dooley built while going 17-20 in three years as head coach at Louisiana Tech.

Moral: There are far fewer "successful, big-name head football coaches" than there are attractive college coaching jobs.

Moral II: Even allowing for the success of Nick Saban at Alabama, it's not apparent that hiring big-name coaches is better than plucking the next big thing in coaching on their way up.

Hiring for a school with every advantage an athletics program can have, Florida Athletics Director Jeremy Foley tends to go for up-and-comers. Obviously, that can yield a Ron Zook; it can also produce a Meyer (two BCS national titles) or a Billy Donovan (two NCAA titles) in men's hoops.

In the case of the Kentucky fan base, I think the fascination with the big-name head coach owes to emotional factors more than football considerations.

When a football program has struggled for as long as UK's has, a belief takes hold among the public that "a normal coach" that might be good enough to win at other schools with more history of success on the gridiron isn't enough to get it done at Kentucky.

The real hard-core UK football follower always wonders if the university is as committed to winning at Commonwealth Stadium as it is to victory in Rupp Arena. Bringing in a "football Pitino" or a "football Calipari" becomes sort of a litmus test.

Thus the local cult of the big-name football coach.

After one year, the jury is obviously still out on current Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips.

Though the ending of Phillips' first season left a sour taste, it is important to keep things in perspective. Joker inherited a 7-6 team that lost in a bowl; he produced a 6-7 team that lost in a bowl.

That is a step in the wrong direction; it is not a program free fall.

Of the 12 SEC head football coaches, Phillips is one of five (Richt, Muschamp, Dan Mullen, James Franklin) who are in their first college head coaching jobs.

Two others (Saban and Bobby Petrino) left failing situations as NFL head men. Two (Steve Spurrier and Houston Nutt) were unemployed (Nutt for one day) before being hired into their current positions.

One (Dooley) moved up from a head coaching job in a smaller conference. Only two (Chizik and Les Miles) came to the SEC as head men from the same job in another BCS automatic-qualifying conference.

Bottom line: There are more SEC football coaches who came into their jobs with the same professional background as Phillips than there are Southeastern Conference head men who had attained the mantle "successful, big-name head football coaches" before taking their current positions.

Fact is, UK already tried the "successful, big-name head coach" model.

In college football, names don't get much bigger than the Alabama head coach. Kentucky hired him in 1990.

Bill Curry went 26-52 in seven seasons in Lexington.

Which doesn't mean that if a Saban or a Bill Belichick took a crazy notion and decided they wanted to coach in horse country they would meet the same fate as Curry at Kentucky.

It does point out that simply hiring a big-name is no guarantee of success.