UK Football

Mark Story: Fans weigh in on UK coaching search, Petrino

UK head coach Joker Phillips watches from the sidelines in the first half. The University of Kentucky Football team hosted Samford, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 at the Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington . Photo by Jonathan Palmer
UK head coach Joker Phillips watches from the sidelines in the first half. The University of Kentucky Football team hosted Samford, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 at the Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington . Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

The election may be over but, in these parts, the debates are not. In Commonwealth Stadium's sparsely filled parking lots before Kentucky took on Samford, Wildcats football loyalists argued over who UK should hire to replace Joker Phillips as head coach.

Most of the contention centered around one name. Bobby Petrino may not appear to be the likely choice to replace the fired Phillips, but the polarizing ex-Louisville head man dominated the pre-game chatter as dusk fell on Commonwealth on Saturday.

The question of whether UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart should turn to Petrino, an indisputably great coach at Louisville and Arkansas who also carries massive off-the-field baggage, even split fathers and sons.

Brandon Shields of Lexington wants Petrino in Lexington, pronto. "He has baggage, yes, but he's gone to places that have been down and turned them around," Shields said.

Brandon's father, Darryl Shields, says Petrino in Lexington should be a non-starter. "He doesn't stay anywhere. You need to be a little loyal," Darryl Shields said.

Petrino lost his job as head man at Arkansas last summer following a sex scandal that became public after the coach was involved in a motorcycle crash while riding with his mistress.

During Petrino's highly successful four-year run (2003-06) at U of L, there were several messy job situations in which Petrino was flirting with other schools, including a secret negotiation with Auburn at a time when the SEC school had a head coach (Tommy Tuberville) in place.

After leaving U of L to be the head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, Petrino departed with three games left in his first season to take the Arkansas job.

Wade Cunningham of Louisville said he could not get behind the idea of Kentucky hiring Petrino.

"Character matters," Cunningham said.

In the same tailgating group, Ben Tofaute disputed that.

"Winning matters," Tofaute said.

Replied Cunningham: "Winning matters, but you should do it with some character."

If Petrino were a politician, the pundits would say he has a gender gap. There were scant few female Cats fans I spoke to who favored hiring Bobby P.

"He has proven, time and time again, everywhere he leaves, nobody has anything good to say about him," said Lexington's Kym Holcomb.

In a highly unscientific survey of Cats fans before Kentucky faced Samford, seven said they wanted Petrino to be the next Wildcats head man.

Nineteen said they opposed that idea.

Outside of the Petrino debate, there was no one name that dominated the thoughts of UK fans at Commonwealth over who should replace Phillips.

To the extent there was any consensus, Andy Sorrell of Louisville came close to expressing it. "I'd like to see them get a young coach, someone up and coming who has potential," he said.

David Morrice of Lexington was one of two fans who mentioned Neal Brown, the youthful Texas Tech offensive coordinator who played wide receiver for UK during the Hal Mumme era. "I would like the young, hot coordinator to put some fun in the game," Morrice said.

Casey Hayden of Frankfort is a Brown backer. "I love seeing offense," he said.

Paducah's Rick Hundley suggested Louisiana Tech head man Sonny Dykes "or an up-and-coming coordinator" like Alabama defensive assistant Kirby Smart.

In the same tailgate group, Lexington's Michael Mayer was advocating for Willie Taggart, the Western Kentucky head man whose Hilltoppers beat UK earlier this season.

No potential candidate, however, stirred the passion, both pro and con, among the UK fans with whom I spoke like Petrino.

Louisville's Darrell Milner wants Petrino in UK blue.

"I want the program to win, I just want the program to win," he said.

Louisville's Debbie Welscher does not want Petrino in UK blue.

"Because of his character," she said. "I can't stand the guy."

Lexington's Nick Waddell says, Mitch Barnhart, hire Bobby P.

"Oh, God, yes," he said. "I'm tired of getting our teeth kicked in every week."

Paducah's Hundley says, Mitch Barnhart, do not hire Bobby P.

"I've been (in Commonwealth Stadium) since the second year the place was built," he said. "But I'll give up my tickets if they hire that guy."

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