By LARRY VAUGHT
Ron Caragher spent four seasons at Kentucky as running backs coach under Rich Brooks from 2003-2006 before becoming the University of San Diego head where he has a 43-22 mark in almost six seasons. He was at UK in 2006 when the Cats finished 8-5 and were 4-4 in Southeastern Conference play. He spent nine seasons (1994-2002) on UCLA’s staff under Terry Donahue and then Bob Toledo — he played there from 1986-89. He coached receivers, punters and kickers during his time there. During the 1997-98 seasons, UCLA won a school-record 20 straight games and averaged over 40 points per game.
His San Diego team finished 9-2 in 2011 and won the Pioneer Football League and he was a nominee for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. This year his team is 7-3 with one game left and still has a chance to give him his third league title in six years.
With Kentucky looking for a coach and knowing Caragher still has ties to Kentucky — his team practiced at UK once when it came to Kentucky to play Morehead — it seemed like he might be the perfect person with ties to the program who wants to see the Cats succeed to share some perspective on the search for coach Joker Phillips’ successor.
“Coaching at Kentucky was so exciting and was one of my most rewarding experiences in coaching,” said Caragher. “Coming off probation and with scholarships reduced, we were still able to turn it around after some painful, challenging early moments. I remember it like it was yesterday beating Georgia in Commonwealth Stadium and what an electrifying experience it was with the goalposts coming down. Then going to the Music City Bowl and beating a really good Clemson team was so special. It was really bittersweet when we left. I was striving to be a head coach and had wanted to do that for years, but Kentucky football was on the rise. Staying would have been fun, but I wanted to drive my own bus.”
He succeeded Jim Harbaugh at San Diego. That’s the same coach who went to Stanford and won and now is winning in the NFL as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
He sees no limitations for Kentucky football despite this year’s 2-9 record. “I see lot of advantages,” he said. “Kentucky is in greatest college football conference in America and in the most stable conference and most respected conference.”
Caragher says the new coach must “do a good job” recruiting in the state. “It will be important for the next coach to go out and meet all the high school coaches and build state pride to where they trust the program and want to send players there,” Caragher said. However, he believes UK can recruit successfully in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia while continuing to find players in Georgia.
“In bordering states there are some young men who like challenges and you throw out the question do you want to go and compete against the best in nation and be challenged playing top teams in the country,” Caragher said. “I think with Kentucky being within driving distance for families so they can see kids plays, that is a big advantage that some other states do not have.”
The former UK assistant said several lower echelon teams have made upward moves in recent years in college football. He sees no reason UK can’t do the same.
“I think that program should compete for a SEC championship on an annual basis. It will be a challenge because of good teams in the SEC. But you want to embrace that and attract young men who want to be challenged daily,” Caragher said. “I think those facilties are all nice, but that is never a reason not to succeed. They are all nice. Not an excuse. Facilties can become an arms race in the SEC. But look at the things at Kentucky. Great indoor facility. Three practice fields, two grass and one turf as good as you will find in the country. We practiced at the Carolina Panthers facility and Kentucky’s practice facility is just as nice. Commonwealth Stadium is nice. I know some stadiums are bigger, but you’ve got the main things you need to win. It’s about having a culture of excellence for the new coach to embrace.”
So how does UK rebuild? Caragher says he learned on thing from Donahue he never forgot.
“Winning is not enough. You need to entertain. While winning is big, the bottom line is entertainment. I think it is important to have an entertaining offense. That means an offense that can throw the ball around and make big plays and creat oohs and aahs in the crowd,” Caragher said. “Starting off you can’t line up from day one and go head to head with established programs in the top five in the country. You need to neutralize that and work around it.”
Caragher points to how Harbaugh won at Stanford while competing against teams like Oregon and USC with better talent and more speed.
“He was not going to out-athlete Oregon and USC. But he thought he could line up and play power smash-mouth where he was not exposed on the perimeter. I am not a fan of just running. I think it is vital to have solid quarterback play where he can complete close to 70 percent of his passes. You do not have to launch down the field all the time. You need a power running game. With that running game you create success and then great play-action off it. It is also important to have solid screen and draw plays,” Caragher said.
He believes a team using that formula can recruit a “NFL-style quarterback” because the system is what pro teams use.
“If you live and die with throwing every down, you can die if the quarterback is not have a good day,” Caragher said. “I believe in balance. So do NFL teams. I also think if you run a spread offense your defense gets hurt because it then has trouble stopping a power running game. People want to see an exciting offense and attacking, aggressive defense. Put pressure on the opposing quarterback so he is never comfortable in the pocket.”
He recently talked to Donahue, who is now a college football TV analyst, and asked him what stands out most about Alabama, the defending national champion. The former UCLA coach told him it was talent evaluation and talent development. He also said most teams don’t do enough to develop a strong walk-on base and notes how he found John Conner when he was coaching at UK and Conner went from walk-on to NFL draft pick.
“I think when people in Kentucky see a product they love and is exciting, they will fill the stadium. Big Blue Nation has fans that are as passionate as the come. They are just as passionate about football as basketball. There’s just been so much basketball success, but people there are anxious for football to have success. They will come to see a winning product,” Caragher said. “I still say the sky is the limit. The Kentucky program can compete and win.”
Maybe Caragher should apply to be Phillips’ successor. He knows the program. He has an exciting offense. He values defense. He understands how to play against more talented teams. He has a recruiting scope based on his time at UK. He has a lot of coaching ties — former UK linebacker Jon Sumrall was his defensive coordinator before leaving for the same job at Tulane.
His name is also being mentioned as a potential candidate at Cal and there has been some speculation that he could even get a call from Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart. He wouldn’t be a hot, sexy hire for Kentucky or anyone else. He wouldn’t be a home run hire. But he sure would come to UK with a plan and that’s important and no matter who the next coach turns out to be, I just hope he might have some of the same beliefs and ideas Caragher does.