Mark Story

Back in Kentucky as a head coach, ex-Cat Craig Yeast has a surprising plan for success

Milestones in the 44-year history of Commonwealth Stadium

Built in 1973, the home of the football Wildcats has undergone many changes through the years.
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Built in 1973, the home of the football Wildcats has undergone many changes through the years.

In all of University of Kentucky football history, Craig Yeast caught more passes (208) for more yards (2,899) and more touchdowns (28) than anyone ever to wear the blue and white.

Now, as the new head man at Kentucky Wesleyan, Yeast, 42, is on the cusp of his first season as a college head coach. One might surmise that the player who made his name catching Tim Couch passes in Hal Mumme’s Air Raid plans to fill the Daviess County air with footballs.

If so, one would be wrong.

Rather than Mumme’s pass-happy ways, Yeast says the more traditional blueprint that has allowed current UK head man Mark Stoops to build the Wildcats from 2-10 in 2013 to 10-3 in 2018 is closer to what he envisions replicating in Owensboro.

“People think of me with the Air Raid, and we do have some of that in our offense,” Yeast said. “But I want to run the football. What Coach Stoops has done at Kentucky, that’s what I want to do here.”

How Yeast came to be the head man at KWC is an interesting tale. When longtime Panthers head coach Brent Holsclaw resigned last summer, the school tabbed assistant Taurean Smith as its interim coach for 2018 with plans to conduct a national search for the permanent replacement.

Yeast, who was in his third season as offensive coordinator at NCAA Division III Franklin College in Indiana, cold called KWC Athletics Director Rob Mallory to express interest in the job.

“Obviously, I knew his name,” Mallory says. “I didn’t know a lot about his coaching background.”

After that phone call, Mallory was intrigued enough by Yeast to seek out more information.

Last Nov. 1, Mallory climbed into his car to travel from Owensboro to Cincinnati for a Kentucky Wesleyan men’s basketball exhibition at Xavier. On the trip, Mallory dialed up a couple of episodes of USA Football’s Coach and Coordinator podcast in which Yeast had been interviewed.

Craig Yeast head shot.jpg
New Kentucky Wesleyan coach Craig Yeast envisions a more balanced offense for his Panthers teams than the Air Raid system he starred in while playing for Kentucky.

“It was real interesting to hear Craig talk about offense,” Mallory said. “Obviously, he came from the Air Raid, played for Hal Mumme and Mike Leach (the current Washington State head coach and former Kentucky offensive coordinator) when he was at UK. But Craig’s approach to offense was more balanced than, maybe, I expected.”

It’s not that Yeast does not throw the football. In 2017, his Franklin College offense led NCAA Division III in passing (407.1 yards a game).

However, Yeast says his 2018 Franklin offense, which averaged 225 yards rushing and 333 yards passing, is closer to his ideal.

From the podcasts, Mallory was impressed with how concisely Yeast was able to communicate his football philosophies.

“He didn’t try to make things more complicated than they have to be,” Mallory said. “I liked that. I thought he was a coach who would be able to get players to understand and buy into what he wants done.”

From a candidate pool that Mallory says numbered between 180 and 190 applicants, Yeast ultimately got Kentucky Wesleyan’s nod.

Yeast, a former option quarterback for Coach Alvis Johnson at Harrodsburg High School in Mercer County, is beyond thrilled to be a college head coach in his home state.

“I love the state of Kentucky,” Yeast says. “I always have.”

In his first recruiting season for Kentucky Wesleyan, Yeast says he noticed that parents of prospects oft remembered him from his time (1994-98) starring at UK.

Many of the high school-aged players he was pursuing, however, related more to Russ Yeast, Craig’s son. A cornerback, Russ Yeast will be a junior this fall on Scott Satterfield’s initial University of Louisville football team.

Craig Yeast scoring TD.JPG
Craig Yeast caught 28 touchdown passes in his University of Kentucky career (1994-98). No player who has ever played for UK has caught more. DAVID STEPHENSON HERALD-LEADER

Across the years, Kentucky Wesleyan as a football program has not been overburdened by success.

An NCAA Division II program (meaning scholarship football) that now competes in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, Wesleyan in the years since 2004 has had more winless seasons (two, 0-11 in both 2006 and 2013) than winning seasons (one, 7-4 in 2014).

Over the past 10 years, KWC is 30-78, including 3-7 last season.

“Craig was not afraid of that,” Mallory says of the Panthers’ lack of prior success. “He sees it as an opportunity to build something.”

Says Yeast: “I’m extremely excited to be here (because) it’s a chance to change a program.”

For those who hear the name “Craig Yeast” and immediately think “Air Raid,” what is unexpected is how the former Kentucky star plans on winning at Kentucky Wesleyan.

“I have a lot of Air Raid principles. A lot of the things we did at Kentucky, I still do,” Yeast says. “But my roots are at Harrodsburg. I want to run the ball and play (good) defense.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.


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