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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky is going to have a lot of challenging games in Mark Stoops’ first season, but there will be no more intriguing game than the season opener in Nashville against Western Kentucky and new coach Bobby Petrino.
The Hilltoppers will be trying to beat UK for a second straight season — a huge no-no for a SEC team. And Petrino will be trying to make a statement immediately that Kentucky and other schools made a mistake by not hiring him.
Petrino named his coaching staff this week and the assistants have a wealth of football experience, both as players and as coaches. Combined, the seven assistants have over 100 years of combined collegiate coaching experience, which include coaching stints at schools such as Arkansas, Baylor, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Louisville, Marshall, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. Together, the seven announced assistants have coached in a combined 14 bowl games, including four BCS bowl games.
Florida State’s defense led the country with 236.3 yards allowed per game before falling to Florida Saturday. He is a finalist for the national defensive coordinator of the year. He has no head coaching experience,
Stoops has never been a head coach, but he has held many jobs throughout college football. He has coached defensive backs at South Florida, Miami and Wyoming and been defensive coordinator at Houston. He was defensive coordinator at Arizona from 2004-09 before moving to Florida State.
Last season his Seminoles only allowed 15.1 per game (4th nationally), in 2010 they allowed 19.6 (20th), and in 2009 they surrendered 30.0 (94th).
He certainly has a strong coaching bloodline. One brother, Bob, is the head coach at Oklahoma. Another brother, Mike, is the former head coach at Arizona. A third brother, Ron Jr., is an assistant coach at Youngstown State.
— Conference realignment could be UK’s best friend in pursuing Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. He may or may not have said no to UK — Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart said Saturday that no one has been offered the job — but with the Big East continuing to lose teams it appears Jones may now have interest in UK if enough money is involved.
— Several media members at Tennessee Saturday indicated that they did still believe Phil Fulmer was on UK’s radar. The former Tennessee coach has been out of coaching four years, but knows Barnhart well. I was also told that Fulmer and UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders are still friends even though Fulmer fired Sanders at UT. Remember a few years ago Barnhart relied on Rich Brooks for guidance in a coaching search and ended up hiring him. Fulmer could well be a backup plan for Barnhart.
— Louisiana Tech Sonny Dykes seems to have dropped off the UK chart for some, but remember there has been contact with his agent. Don’t write him off yet?
— Bobby Petrino? The rumors continue, but several UK folks told me again Saturday that this is a move Barnhart will not make.
By LARRY VAUGHT
J.R. Greer of London knows numerous ex-Kentucky football players and often communicates with them as well as his former college roommate through Facebook.
That’s why Friday he thought he might have a little fun with them and posted a message that Bobby Petrino had agreed to become the next Kentucky football coach.
“If I could get any coach out there, I would get Petrino,” said Greer. “I go to every UK game and tailgate. I love Kentucky football. I just decided to post Petrino was getting the job and figured my friends would get all riled up and react. I never dreamed it would go outside my small network of friends.”
It did. And it did in a big way even before news broke Saturday that Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, who was considered UK’s primary target, had taken his name out of the Kentucky search.
Internet message boards spread the word about Petrino more so than any news about Jones. Radio talk shows spread the Petrino word.
Eventually Greer had to go on Facebook late Friday and post this message: “I want to apologize that earlier I wrote that Bobby Petrino would be our next coach. My post was in humor as most all my post are (if not pictures of family or friends). We support UK and the Big Blue Nation and trust Mitch Barnhart will make the best hire possible for UK.”
However, Greer admitted he “had hundreds of friend requests in a matter of minutes” with people hoping the news about Petrino was true. He even got a message from an assistant coach at a well-known program asking him to pass along his name to Petrino because he wanted to work on Petrino’s staff at Kentucky.
“That let me know fans not only deserved a quality football coach, but expected strong leadership from the UK administration and Mitch Barnhart,” Greer said. “I am just not sure Mitch Barnhart and the UK administration are doing enough to inform fans. Throw us a bone and let us know something.
“People were calling and sending me messages that they were praying for this (hiring Petrino). My little voice was not supposed to be heard this much. It just really steamrolled out of control. That’s why I had to apologize.”
Greer’s father is regarded as a major UK booster and his family has numerous season tickets to UK basketball and football.
“We have a close relationship with the athletics department at Kentucky. We want to stay friends and not raise a stink,” Greer said. “UK football is bigger than any fan or booster. We trust them to make the right hire.”
However, because Barnhart announced the firing of coach Joker Phillips three weeks ago via social media and with no press conference, Greer says that likely gave his comments about Petrino’s hiring more validity than they should have got.
“The thing is this hire could have a big impact on Mitch’s future. I would have thought he might want to get some people together and see what fans, boosters, ex-players want in a coach,” Greer said. “If he chooses the wrong coach, UK football could spiral downward more than ever. We don’t want that.
“I think my thing with Petrino was driven by hope and fear. Hope because a lot of fans want Petrino and were hoping it was true. Fear was driven by people scared that Mitch is not going to make the right choice and he will hire the wrong guy. It was like people thought if they helped steamroll this Petrino news it might actually come true. But trust me, I never imagined it would become the huge deal it was.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
By LARRY VAUGHT
Folks at Vanderbilt must be feeling really good today because in the last two weeks the Commodores have drilled Kentucky and Tennessee and forced both schools to fire their coaches the day after the loss.
However, there’s one big difference in what Tennessee did Sunday when it released Derek Dooley compared to how Kentucky fired Joker Phillips.
Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart didn’t post a letter to fans on a website. Instead, he held a press conference to talk about his decision and what direction the coaching search would go. Dooley issued a statement.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart announced Phillips’ firing on the UK website and has yet to talk publicly about it as speculation continues to swirl about who the next coach might be. Phillips has met with media members five times since his firing and has been open, cordial and informative.
Dooley and Phillips have had about the same lack of success in their three years. Dooley was 15-21 at Tennessee and was 0-15 against top 25 teams. He lost 14 of his last 15 SEC games, including one at UK last year. The Vols must beat Kentucky on Saturday to avoid going winless in SEC play for the first time in school history. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as Tennessee’s interim coach while Phillips will coach his final game after UK beat Samford last week and players carried Phillips off the field.
Tennessee will be looking for its fourth coach in six years. Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008, Lane Kiffin coached one year and then Dooley came from Louisiana Tech where he had a losing record and is gone after three years.
Hart said he probably wouldn’t use a search firm in choosing his next coach. Is Barnhart? We don’t know. He won’t tell us.
Hart said he considers previous head coaching experience “critically important.” Does Barnhart? We don’t know. He won’t tell us.
For those who say the Tennessee program is more attractive, remember the Tennessee football program is on probation until August 2015. The university’s athletic department posted a $3.98 million budget deficit for the last fiscal year and is paying buyouts to Fulmer, former athletics director Mike Hamilton, former basketball coach Bruce Pearl and former baseball coach Todd Raleigh. Now add another $5 million buyout for Dooley. That makes about $2.5 million for Phillips look like nothing.
Rumors swirled again Saturday that UK was close to a deal with Fulmer. On Sunday, speculation was that Cincinnati coach Butch Jones — who turned down a lucrative offer from Illinois last year — was offered the job.
What sales pitch is Barnhart using considering UK has had three straight losing seasons, attendance has dropped dramatically and the 2013 schedule is more difficult than the one this year? We don’t know. Barnhart won’t tell us.
What about Hart? What’s he selling at Tennessee?
“This is the ultimate challenge, which competitors embrace,” Hart said. “This is the ultimate challenge, for a football coach to come into this league. If you’re a competitor and you want to prove your worth, come into the Southeastern Conference. Come to the University of Tennessee. You’ll get that opportunity.”
Sounds like a possible sales pitch to Bobby Petrino to me.
Hopefully, Barnhart is saying the same — and more — to possible coaches even if Petrino, the former Louisville and Arkansas coach, is obviously not on his list.
By LARRY VAUGHT
With the Kentucky football coaching rumors continuing to increase, Lonny Demaree of Kentucky Sports Report (kysportsreport.com) dropped a new name in a big way into the discussion during an appearance with Larry Glover on WVLK (590 AM) Thursday night.
He says sources are telling him that Arizona coach Rich Rodriquez has “risen to the top of Mitch Barnhart’s list” because he has an exciting offense that can score, has solid recruiting ties and can excite fans.
He’s the former coach at West Virginia who left there to coach Michigan, where he failed miserably. He was 15-22 at Michigan — and the program was hit with four NCAA major violations — before he was dismissed. He’s resurfaced at Arizona, a job one current college coach told me Thursday was “a job 10 times better than Kentucky” when I asked him about Rodriquez. He also told me he thought there was about a $3 million buyout on his contract with Arizona that UK would have to probably pay along with the nearly $3 million it has to give Joker Phillips.
Another rumor that keeps growing is that former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher has interest in the job, something several sources continue to tell me is not true.
Phil Fulmer? The stories about the former Tennessee coach being high on Barnhart’s list won’t go away and there is no doubt Fulmer has made it clear he would like the job.
Bobby Petrino? It seems like this is over and now there is talk some media outlets might be trying to obtain emails between UK officials over the coaching search that could possibly include some interesting observations on Petrino.
Kirby Smart? The Alabama defensive coordinator’s name seems to be fading away, but some are now saying LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis could be in play. Again, not sure I really buy that.
By LARRY VAUGHT
On my way to Atlanta for the Kentucky-Duke game, I took time to stop in Chattanooga to see Signal Mountain quarterback Reese Phillips, a UK commit. I spent about 45 minutes with him and coach Bill Price and even watched video of his final game, a 42-41 overtime loss where his team trailed 28-0 before rallying to force overtime behind Phillips’ play.
Question: What was your reaction to coach Joker Phillips being fired?
Phillips: “It was disappointing because you get attached to guys and people who give you the opportunity to play in such a high conference, but at the end of the day it is the way the SEC is. If you are not winning, stuff like this happens. It was disappointing, but I understood.”
Question: Have you been in contact with anyone at UK since Phillips was fired?
Phillips: “I talked to (offensive coordinator) coach (Randy) Sanders the day of (the firing), probably two hours after I learned what happened to Joker. He told me he was disappointed and didn’t really know about his situation. He pretty much just told me how it was. He kind of expected it. I think everyone did, especially after Vanderbilt (a 40-0 loss). A loss like that is hard.
“People kept asking me did I not expect it to happen. And I did. It was not like I didn’t expect it, but it is kind of like a surreal thing. You don’t expect yourself to get attached to somebody and then they get fired. Then it is like, ‘Man, what am I going to do now?’ But I am not worried about it. It is still a good situation.”
Question: So is it just waiting to see who the new coach is knowing you still have a chance to play quarterback in the SEC?
Phillips: “You can’t control it. I can’t go out and hire somebody. Me and (Signal Mountain) coach (Bill) Price have talked a lot about it. The really good thing is people say if they don’t bring in a system that will fit me, it wouldn’t fit the other quarterbacks because I am the exact same as the other quarterbacks, which is a good thing. In the long run, I think it will benefit me the best, so I am not worried about it.”
Question: What qualities would you like to see in the next coach?
Phillips: “Like Joker. I loved the way he was. Maybe he was not the best coach, but he was a great person. He made you feel like family right away and truly the way he made me feel and the reason I committed early. It is in the SEC and Joker was a good guy and coach Sanders was always someone I loved. Just qualities of a family man and respects his players and enjoys being around them.”
Question: What do you think of the speculation that maybe Bobby Petrino could be UK’s next coach?
Phillips: “I don’t know. I have never met him. I would have to talk to him and see what he is like. I have heard stuff about him, but you can’t go off stuff people say about other people. I would have to learn about him and get to know him. That’s the only way to really dissect somebody.”
Question: Would his offense be good for you and UK’s returning quarterbacks?
Phillips: “He has done some good things, so that is positive. He would definitely bring a system I would look forward to.”
Question: At your age, do you mainly judge a coach on what he can do for you and your team and not things that have happened in the past or not?
Phillips: “It would come down to winning obviously. That is the reason you keep playing is to win. Everyone wants to win. The way he treats me and how he is going to do for my future is important. If he can do good things for me and also put the team in a good place because Kentucky deserves it and a winning team and winning environment.”
Question: Could an offensive-minded coach like Sonny Dykes of Louisiana Tech do the same thing?
Phillips: “Honestly, I have heard his name but don’t much about him other than statistics people throw at me.”
Question: Are you not really that consumed with all the coaching speculation?
Phillips: “Not at all. I am just enjoying my last couple of months of high school. I trust everything will be fine.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Before I head out to watch Kentucky fans stomp on Christian Laettner — remember it is all to benefit the V Foundation at a fundraiser hosted by Dick Vitale, Jeff Sheppard and Laettner — I thought I would share some of the many theories I’ve heard today on the UK football coaching search.
Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones says Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes and Alabama defensive coordinator are UK’s top choices. No argument here against either. Dykes and his Tony Franklin-led offense have been terrific and could be on the verge of knocking Louisville out of a BCS bowl — and I know how sad that would make most UK fans — and I believe there has been contact at least with Dykes’ agent. Smart is a proven defensive mind from his time at LSU and Alabama.
However, remember the rumor about former Steelers coach Bill Cowher being high on the UK want list. Well, another source shared this information with me today:
“Kentucky wants a NFL coach and that seems to be the first choice right now. Mitch (Barnhart) has been spending a lot of time calling NFL teams and seeking permission to speak with various coaches. The smaller named guys such as Caragher, Brown, Kingsbury are definitely out. UK wants a big name splash from the NFL. Petrino is still in the mix and not tabled as of today, but now seems like an unlikely choice,” the source with close ties to UK said.
One former UK football player I talked to is frustrated more progress is not being made and wonders why “contact with prospective coach had not already been made” if Joker Phillips was going to be fired with two games left.
“The search has the organizational dynamics of a kindergarten Halloween party,” the player said. “If Petrino is not hired, and goes elsewhere in the SEC, I’m not sure UK can ever recover. UK football will not recover from a no to Petrino decision. Will financially and competitively ruin a Division 1 football program.”
That brings to mind a recent story by Chris Smith at Forbes.com about the value to Kentucky of hiring Petrino. He called hiring Petrino a n0-brainer for UK and wrote:
“Even leaving on-field performance aside, hiring Petrino would be a great financial move for Kentucky. Petrino’s marred reputation will help Kentucky get a top-tier coach at a bargain price, likely well below the $3.6 million he made each season at Arkansas. Kentucky is currently giving Phillips $1.7 million per season, and it’s doubtful that the school would have to pay much more for Petrino’s services. Moreover, Petrino was one of college football’s top CEOs while at Arkansas. From 2010 to 2012, the Razorbacks’ value rose a staggering 59% to $89 million. That increase was mainly the result of strong on-field play on the back of the coach’s cost-efficient spending. In fact, Petrino’s Razorbacks spent the third-least per win of any SEC team in the 2010 season en route to the Sugar Bowl.”
Here’s more: “Thanks in large part to such basketball success, Kentucky’s athletic department contributed $1.7 million to academics in 2010. Those contributions will only surge higher with a successful football team. Hiring Bobby Petrino, it would seem, is one of the best ways to build one both on the field and in the balance sheet.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Depending on who you want to hear, it’s easy to find many, many directions that the UK football coaching search could go.
Here are various scenarios I heard or had pitched to me today:
— Never ever will athletics director Mitch Barnhart hire Bobby Petrino. Too much risk, too much baggage no matter what the reward.
— UK AD Mitch Barnhart will not have the final say on hiring the new coach, which means it will be a lot easier for Petrino to be offered the job.
— There was little or no movement in the coaching search Monday possibly because Barnhart was hoping Tennessee would have an opening and snatch Petrino to take the pressure of him.
— A Kentucky insider is saying Barnhart is going for a home run hire — former Steelers coach Bill Cowher and cites John Calipari’s ties to current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin as one reason it could happen.
The list could go on and on. But here is the best information I got today from someone I trust and who has direct knowledge of many things going on.
One, Barnhart has a priority list of coaches that includes a “home run hire” as well as Petrino because others at UK want Petrino considered. Two, there is a second level that could include a coach like Sonny Dykes as well as a coach like David Cutcliffe of Duke. Three, there’s a list that would involve current coordinators at the both the collegiate and NFL level.
“I don’t think there are nearly as many names being discussed for the job as many want to believe. I don’t think the list of possible candidates is nearly as long as some think,” the source told me.
And as I was driving through Knoxville, I listened to a Tennessee sports talk show when the idea of perhaps bring Phil Fulmer — and yes, his name has been mentioned at Kentucky because of ties to Barnhart — back came up. The talk show hosts as well as fans thought it was a terrible idea. And remember he led Tennessee to a national title and the fans don’t want him back. That shows how fickle a coaching search can be.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Has Tennessee coach Derek Dooley been fired? And if he has, what impact, if any, will that have on Kentucky’s coaching search, especially when it comes to Bobby Petrino?
Several sources were reporting Sunday that Dooley, who is 4-18 play since taking over the Vols in 2010 after Lane Kiffin left, has been fired following Saturday’s overtime loss to Missouri dropped Tennessee to 4-6 overall and 0-6 in SEC play with games left against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. And remember, he did lose to UK last year.
And what about Auburn coach Gene Chizik. His team is 2-8 overall and 0-7 in SEC play after a 35-0 loss to No. 5 Georgia. He would be owed a $7.5 million buyout as of Dec. 1 if he gets fired as many Auburn fans seem to hope he will be.
“I think you got to look under the hood of the car and you’ve got to figure out where the problems are under the hood and that’s going to become a very extensive evaluation starting with a lot of different areas,”Chizik told The Associated Press. “I think that from there you can make very informed decisions on where you need to go with the next season and starting in January.”
Of course, Joker Phillips was saying the same things at Kentucky before he was fired with a 1-9 mark and 0-7 SEC slate.
Tennessee could go after Petrino. So could Auburn.
Several more sources confirmed Sunday that UK indeed has a major interest in Petrino, the former Louisville and Arkansas coach who has a winning, productive offense that impress many as well as plenty of questions about his character that scare some.
However, it seems clear that if UK wants Petrino to revive its program, the timetable for doing so is now with the possibility that Dooley has been fired and Chizik might be.