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By LARRY VAUGHT
Could Neal Brown be coaching at the University of Kentucky next season?
With Kentucky looking for a new football coach — and likely an entire new staff — speculation is running rampant on who UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart might target to be the next coach. Brown, 32, is having his name mentioned because of the amazing success he’s had as offensive coordinator at Troy and now at Texas Tech for the last three years. He’s been called one of the “bright young minds in college football” and just to have his name even being mentioned as a possible head coaching candidate at a Southeastern Conference school is remarkable.
Brown, a Nelson County native, is one of the better all-around athletes ever to play at Boyle County. He spent three years as a walk-on receiver at Kentucky under coach Hal Mumme and offensive minds Tony Franklin, Mike Leach and Chris Hatcher. He played in the Outback and Music City bowls and was also a member of the Southeastern Conference’s all-academic team all three seasons before transferring to Massachusetts to finish his playing career and had 58 catches for 721 yards and four touchdowns.
Brown paid his coaching dues as he started at UMass coaching the offensive line and tight ends before going to Sacred Heart to coach receivers and quarterbacks. His next move was to Delaware as receivers coach before he left to join Franklin, the offensive coordinator, at Troy and coach receivers. When Franklin became offensive coordinator at Auburn, Brown took over at Troy.
During his tenure at Troy, the Trojans won four consecutive conference titles and earned three bowl invitations. Despite being the youngest offensive coordinator in the FBS, Brown in 2009 had Troy ranked third nationally in total offense (485.6 yards per game), fourth in passing (336.5 yards per game) and 16th in scoring (33.69 points per game). Troy won two outright conference championships and played in two bowl games with Brown as offensive coordinator.
When Tommy Tuberville got the Texas Tech job in 2010 after Leach was fired, he brought in Brown — who was only 29 then — to run the offense and the Red Raiders have put up big numbers annually. His 2010 team finished fourth in the conference in total offense (460.2 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (33.1 points). Brown inherited a team that finished last in the league in rushing offense in 2009 (84.0 yards per game) and increased that total by an average of 57 yards to show that he could do more than coach a pass-happy offense. The 2010 Red Raiders ranked 15th in the country in total offense and sixth in passing offense.
Last year Texas Tech ranked 13th nationally in total offense at 470.58 yards per game and 22nd in scoring at 33.83 points per game. Quarterback Seth Doege was a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award and led the nation in completions with 33.17 per game. The Red Raiders also scored a stunning 41-38 upset at No. 3 Oklahoma. This season Tech is averaging 354.7 yards per game passing and 499.6 yards overall along with 38.4 points per game. The Red Raiders are 6-3 after falling to Kansas State and Texas the last two games and ranked 25th in this week’s Associated Press poll.
Brown wisely is not talking about his future. He’s correctly worried about getting wins over Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor to end the season.
However, both Brown and Tuberville know their names are being mentioned in connection with the UK coaching search. Brown, who was considered for the head coaching job at Massachusetts last year, could find himself on Kentucky’s list by himself or in connection with his head coach.
Tuberville could also be a candidate at Arkansas, a job that likely would be more attractive to him because he’s from Arkansas and likely there will be a much larger salary and commitment to football than what he will find at Kentucky.
But sources have confirmed there has been some “preliminary contact” between UK and Brown’s agent, a Birmingham-based attorney. Remember, new UK president Eli Capilouto came to Lexington from Birmingham and may well know Brown’s agent. Could that help Brown? Maybe, maybe not. But coaching advancement is often about knowing the right people at the right time.
Sources are indicating that Barnhart would like to name a new coach not long after UK ends the season Nov. 24 at Tennessee. The UK basketball team doesn’t play until Nov. 29 after a Nov. 23 game, so that would give Barnhart a perfect spot to announce the coach and let all the focus be on the new hire.
Look for Brown’s agent to have a conversation with UK officials this week to gauge possible interest on each end. Remember Brown now makes more than UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders just like Tuberville makes more than Phillips. Texas Tech also is positioned better to win more games annually than Kentucky.
Still, no matter what happens, just being mentioned as a possible coaching candidate and being contacted by UK is the next logical step in Brown’s progression to being a Division I head coach. It’s going to happen. Maybe not at Kentucky — bold moves are not what this UK administration is known for when it comes to football — but eventually some school is going to nab Brown and be very happy that it did.