Mark Story

Mark Story: UK fans craving a big-name coach should consider a Plan B

UK Coach Joker Phillips, left, and South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier shook hands after the Gamecocks' 54-3 rout. Phillips wasn't angry Spurrier ran up the score. "That's their offense," Phillips said. "Why should our problem become their problem?"
UK Coach Joker Phillips, left, and South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier shook hands after the Gamecocks' 54-3 rout. Phillips wasn't angry Spurrier ran up the score. "That's their offense," Phillips said. "Why should our problem become their problem?"

For that segment of the Kentucky football fan base that worships at The Altar of The Big Name Coach, a pillar of their faith will be on the opposing sideline in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.

What Steve Spurrier has done at South Carolina is one reason so many UK fans seem ready to overlook Bobby Petrino's elastic history with the truth if the Kentucky job opens after this season.

Until South Carolina hired first Lou Holtz and then Spurrier — back-to-back coaches with national championships on their résumés — the Carolina football program was in even worse shape than UK's.

At the time South Carolina entered the SEC in 1992, the Gamecocks had never won a bowl game.

From '92 through the 1999 season, Carolina went 3-5 head-to-head against UK. In that time span, the Gamecocks had fewer overall wins than Kentucky (UK was 37-53, South Carolina 32-56-1) and fewer league victories (UK 21-43, South Carolina 18-45-1).

By 1999, South Carolina had tired of trying to climb the steep SEC football ladder with coaching mediocrities such as Sparky Woods and Brad Scott. The Gamecocks decided to go for game-changing coaching hires.

First came Holtz (1999-2004), who won the national title at Notre Dame in 1988. Dr. Lou survived an 0-11 first season at South Carolina in 1999 to lead "the other USC" to three winning seasons in the next five, including back-to-back Outback Bowl victories over Ohio State.

After Holtz stepped down, Carolina lured an even bigger name in the then-unemployed Spurrier. The Head Ball Coach had built a juggernaut at Florida in the 1990s and claimed the national championship in 1996. However, an ill-fated NFL stint with the Washington Redskins left Spurrier looking for a place to relaunch.

"Steve Superior" has not had the kind of success in Columbia he knew in Gainesville, but he has steadily elevated South Carolina. In 2010, the Gamecocks made their initial trip to the SEC Championship Game. Last year, they won 11 games in a season for the first time in school history. This year, the undefeated Gamecocks (4-0) will carry the nation's No. 6 ranking into Lexington on Saturday.

In the 2000s, South Carolina has fully turned the tables on UK, going 11-1 head-to-head against the Cats. Since 2000, the Gamecocks are 92-61 overall and have a winning record in the brutal SEC (50-48). Kentucky is 62-87 overall since 2000 and 24-73 in the league.

So if Joker Phillips is unable to stave off the braying jackals and survive his third season as Kentucky head coach, the South Carolina example shows hiring The Big Name Coach is the key to turning the fortunes of UK football. Right?

As a guy who used to coach college football in this state now says on ESPN, not so fast, my friends.

What made the South Carolina job attractive to a Spurrier-level coach is the main thing the Kentucky position lacks: a bountiful in-state recruiting base.

Spurrier has taken his program to another level since 2009 thanks, in large part, to a bevy of home-grown stars — think Stephon Gilmore, Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, to name four.

Of the 22 South Carolina players listed as first-team this week (not counting specialists), 13 are in-state products. Of 10 defensive linemen on the Carolina depth chart, eight are homebred.

By comparison, only eight of Kentucky's 22 listed starters this week are products of high school football in the commonwealth.

Should Phillips be fired, throwing all aspiration into Kentucky making a Spurrier-quality hire overlooks some other hard realities.

The last time the Tennessee job opened, the Volunteers wound up hiring Louisiana Tech's head man — and Derek Dooley had a 17-20 career record with the bulldogs.

When the Florida job was most recently vacant, the Gators tabbed an up-and-comer — Will Muschamp had no prior head coaching experience.

Auburn's most recent hire brought no star appeal — Gene Chizik was 5-19 as head man at Iowa State.

Moral: There are not enough Big Name Coaches to go around even for schools with far more football tradition and resources than Kentucky.

If — if — UK has an opening and Nick Saban or Chris Petersen find themselves with a strange hankering to coach football at Kentucky, well, UK should go all in.

But here in the real world, prudence would suggest UK better have a viable Plan B other than The Big Name Coach.

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