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By LARRY VAUGHT
With no idea what the exact timetable Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart has in mind for hiring a new football coach, it does make sense that he probably has started to narrow down his coaching search.
Sources tell me Barnhart did indeed place a call to former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who told him he had no interest in college coaching. But give Barnhart credit for making the call. If you don’t swing for the fence, you can’t hit a home run.
One thing several coaches/fans have mentioned to me is that the UK staff needs to get younger. Look at basketball coach Johnn Calipari’s staff and how often you hear recruits talk about relating to assistant coach Orlando Antigua. Tee Martin was that guy on Joker Phillips’ staff but he left for USC. I know experience is valuable in coaching, but relating to players is very important, too.
“Cal probably has never heard a rap CD in his life, but I guarantee you Orlando Antigua can name every rapper those kids listen to and gets Cal to call them,” said one source with knowledge of UK’s football coaching search.
Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes is on UK’s list. I’m convinced UK has at least reached out to his agent and has the feeling Dykes, who is 9-2 this year going into Saturday’s game with San Jose State, would have interest in the job if offered. While the Cats may also have interest in Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, who turned down $2.5 million per year from Illinois last year, it seems UK would have a more realistic chance to land Dykes if it moves now.
Here’s why Dykes could be a nice fit at Kentucky — and remember it doesn’t always take a big-name coach to succeed as James Franklin is proving at Vanderbilt.
— He knows Kentucky football. He was a graduate assistant at UK under Hal Mumme in 1997 when the Cats beat Alabama and came back in 1999 to coach receivers and special teams. The Cats beat No. 20 Arkansas and went to the Music City Bowl. He coached James Whalen, Quentin McCord, Derek Smith and Brad Pyatt, all future NFL signees.
— He has recruiting ties to Texas. He grew up in Texas and his father, Spike Dykes, was the head coach at Texas Tech. In 2000, Dykes joined from UK assistant coach Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech. He coached wide receivers for five years and then was promoted to offensive coordinator. In Dykes’ second season as co-offensive coordinator, Texas Tech ranked third in passing with 370 passing yards per game and sixth in total offense averaging nearly 450 total yards per game. That season Dykes directed an offense that scored 32 points per game, and two receivers ranked top three in the nation in receptions per game and a third receiver ranked in the top 20.
— He’s relatively young at age 43. He can relate to players and that also means he has a burning desire to win and continue to see his coaching career escalate. Every move he’s made — he went from Texas Tech to Arizona as offensive coordinator and then to Louisiana Tech as head coach in 2010 — has been an upward move and he’s continued to have more success at each stop.
— He does value defense. This year his defense is not that good, but it has been decimated by injuries to players he expected to have starting. Last year his team led the conference in defense. And his father valued defense at Texas Tech. Dykes loves a productive, entertaining offense, but he wants a defense that can get off the field, too.
“He has an ego, but what good coach doesn’t,” said one college coach who knows Dykes. “He trusts his coaches, though, and knows how to let coaches coach. He also genuinely cares about people in the program from the assistant coaches’ wives to the janitor. You can’t fake that. Sonny won’t cheat, either. What he will do is flat-out coach. At Kentucky, you better be able to coach. That’s what James Franklin has done at Vanderbilt. He has a plan, everybody is on board, he hired good assistant coaches and they outcoach some people with better talent.”
Those close to Dykes insist money — for him — will not be a main point in negotiations with one of several jobs he could be offered in the next few weeks. Instead, he’ll be more concerned with salaries for his staff and the overall commitment to football.
What about Tony Franklin, Dykes’ offensive coordinator? He was also the running backs coach and then offensive coordinator at Kentucky under Mumme. His offense is not the same one Dykes ran at Arizona and this offense has been on fire at Louisiana Tech. But Franklin had what some remember as a nasty departure from UK just before the NCAA woes with Mumme hit. Many felt Franklin leaked information to the media and he later wrote a book about his time at UK. He also sued UK.
However, read the book. He did not blister UK football. The suit? He just wanted a letter saying he was not involved in any wrongdoing and that he didn’t leak information. He got both as UK sent a letter to every Division I school saying that.
Dykes would want Franklin — and any school that wants Dykes should want Franklin as well because the offense has worked so well. Would that be a dealbreaker at UK? I don’t know, but it shouldn’t be.
“Sonny is going to get his chance to move up and when he does, a school is going to get a really good, young coach,” the college coach said. “Maybe it will be Kentucky. Maybe it will be somebody else in the SEC. Who knows? Then again, if Sonny doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll be more than content to stay at Louisiana Tech and continuing to build that program and win games.”