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By LARRY VAUGHT
As he was driving from Charleston, S.C., to work the C.H.A.M.P. Camp here last year, former Kentucky All-American Derek Abney knew it likely was a “make or break” season for UK coach Joker Phillips and his staff.
He was right. Kentucky went 2-10 and Phillips was fired. But the mood is totally different a year later.
“Kentucky is coming off a 2-10 season and there has been more offseason talk about Kentucky football than I have ever known,” said Abney during a break Friday at the camp directed by former UK player Champ Kelly. “It is a completely different mood and is so very exciting.”
Abney caught 197 passes for 2,339 yards and 18 scores from 2000-2003. He returned 95 kickoffs for 2,315 yards and two scores and 88 punts for 1,042 yards and six scores. He left Kentucky with the second-most receiving yards in team history, and the second-most all-purpose yards in Southeastern Conference (SEC) history. The Baltimore Ravens chose him in the seventh round of the 2004 NFL Draft, but he never got a chance to play a regular-season NFL game.
Abney knows UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown because the two played together at Kentucky. He recently reminded Brown of the time they were going through drills and Brown ran into coach Tony Franklin, who later gave Brown a job working for him at Troy. Now Brown and Franklin, who is at California, are two of the most productive offensive coordinators in the country.
“Neal immediately remembered that story, too,” Abney said. “I am excited for him. He is a good one. Obviously, he has shown at Texas Tech what a great offense he has and he has confidence in his game. I am so happy he is getting this opportunity. I kind of reached out to him to get him to this camp, but he’s not allowed due to NCAA restrictions. And I am so glad that John Schlarman (offensive line coach) and Chad Scott (running backs coach) are back at UK with him.
“Chad’s wife went to Kentucky and Schlarman’s family and his wife’s family are all Kentuckians. They all bleed blue. They have been with Neal. He could have had his pick of offensive line and running back coaches, but he stuck with those guys and I’m glad he did. They bleed blue and have earned it. It’s just the perfect storm with the right guys at the right program. I am not at all surprised with how well they have recruited.”
Former UK coach Hal Mumme sent Franklin to Wisconsin to recruit Abney. The former All-American is glad Stoops is again focusing on elite players as Mumme did, but also likes the emphasis Stoops has put on keeping the best in-state talent at UK and rattled off Trinity defensive end Jason Hatcher, Franklin County receiver Ryan Timmons and Conner quarterback Drew Barker as examples.
“Mumme really didn’t recruit Kentucky guys that much. Now this staff is focusing on Florida, Ohio, Texas, but still focusing on Kentucky guys, too,” Abney said. “They have to do that. But they are doing very similar things to coach Mumme. They are trying to get the best players, best receivers.”
Abney respected former coach Joker Phillips, especially for the way he tried to get alumni back involved in the program. However, he admits Stoops has a “younger staff with a lot more energy” that is paying dividends in recruiting
“Also you have the fact that players can relate to an offensive coordinator that is arguably the best in the business and a head coach that turned around Florida State’s defense in two or three years,” Abney said. “It is crazy that Kentucky is doing so well in recruiting. But if you really think about it, it is not that surprising. The energy, the ties to Kentucky, the results they have had, the Ohio connections. Who doesn’t want a kid in that situation. They have a lot of pluses going.”
That includes the way Stoops and assistant Vince Marrow are connected in Ohio and keep convincing top players in that state to come south to play in the SEC at UK like Mumme and Franklin did Abney.
“With the history Stoops and Marrow have in Ohio and the chance to play in the SEC close to where you live, that is huge,” Abney said. “With all the quality players Ohio has, it’s really surprising UK has not recruited there more like these guys are now.
“Why I chose Kentucky was first and foremost the style of play. Second, it was in the SEC. Third, I had family in the area. But the opportunity to play in the SEC was big for me just like it is these kids from Ohio now. Take advantage of that.”
Former Kentucky offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, now the offensive coordinator at California, has played a big role in Kentucky running backs coach Chad Scott’s career. He not only recruited Scott at UK, but also helped Scott with the transfer process.
“Once I was cleared to leave here at Kentucky, he helped me and guided me in that option. He gave me my first coaching job when he hired me at Troy. He had hired me to work some of his summer camps to get experience coaching guys and after I was a GA at North Carolina he was the first one to give me a full-time job. He gave me an opportunity to come to college and then the opportunity to be a full-time coach,” Scott said.
“We are still very close. He is even influential now in my maturation as a coach. I talked to him quite frequently and we stay in contact. He has been huge in my career as player and coach. We are close for lot of reasons and I owe him a lot.”
Scott says he’s passionate about what he does, which is one thing Franklin told him would make him a successful recruiter.
“I do a great job building relationships with kids and I am a young coach so I can relate to what they are doing. Some of the kids coming up have a lot of struggles and lot of adversity they deal with, all things I have gone through as a player and coach from a GA sleeping in my car to having the success I have now,” Scott said. “I can relay those stories to kids and they can relate in their own way to what story they may have.
“Being able to share those kind of stories and similarities that you may have and them seeing what it might be like on the other side helps me build relationships with those guys. But you also have to be passionate about it, and I am.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Former Kentucky offensive coordinator Tony Franklin hired Neal Brown to coach receivers at Troy the year before he brought Chad Scott to Troy to coaching running backs.
“When I first got to Troy, coach Franklin said you kind of need to watch Neal. He is well organized, he is passionate about what he does, he is anal about little things, he is detailed oriented even about little things,” Scott said. “He said, ‘You need to follow his lead and let him mold you because he knows what he is doing,’ and that’s what I did.
“So we bonded real well as coaches because everything he did, I took from him. The setup of recruiting areas, how you study film, how you analyze film, how you grade it. We just kind of hit it off. When he became the coordinator (at Troy when Franklin left for Auburn), we kept working with each other. I was very fortunate that he thought very highly of me.
“Outside of just knowing the coaching duties, I never knew he exactly how he felt about me as a coach until he had the opportunity to go to Texas Tech and took me with him. It was a huge honor for him to take me as a running back coach with him. I stayed there and I turned down coaching jobs to stay with him. I appreciate the loyalty that he has, and the respect he has for me as a coach. I think we work really well together.”
Scott said it is “easy to work” for Brown because he makes it clear what he expects.
“It’s easy to work for him because I try to stay one or two steps ahead of him in terms of things I know he wants from me and expects me to do. So in that regard, it’s easy to work for him because I know exactly what he expects,” Scott said.
He was hoping when Brown got the job at Kentucky as offensive coordinator that he would get to come, too.
“I was hoping that he wanted me here with him. I didn’t necessarily expect it, but I was hoping,” the UK running backs coach said. “We both played here together and I have been with him all that time. He knows me. I was hoping it would work out, and it did.”
Scott isn’t sure what his role will be on game day at UK, but at Texas Tech he was on the sideline with Brown.
“I was one of the guys that signalled (the plays) and also one of the guys that would control the substitution going in and out of the game with the skilled guys. I handle the adjustments of run game and running game things,” Scott said.
And what’s he like on the sideline?
“I am one of the rowdy guys, the excitable guy. It is fun. That is what you do. You put in all the time and all the work and all the hours of preparation during the week, but the game is fun,” Scott said. “Obviously there are times when it gets a little time consuming, but game day is fun. I am excited to see guys execute and make big plays. If they go out there and do it, I am excited. If they go out there and screw up, you will see another side of me. I am a rowdy guy.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Former UK offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was at Kentucky when new UK coaches Neal Brown, Chad Scott and John Schlarman played for the Cats and also hired all three at Troy when he was offensive coordinator.
“Chad was a video GA (graduate assistant) at North Carolina and had never coached before when I hired him,” Franklin said. “I recruited Chad and knew him and his family well. I knew the type person he was. He had worked my camps and I knew his coaching ability from there and thought he had a chance to be a special guy as a coach.”
What about as a recruiter?
“You never know about that stuff. To me, in recruiting there are two ways you can be good,” Franklin said. “One is being a compulsive liar, one is being honest and forthright and being a good human being. That’s the way he has made it and I knew he would be that way. A lot of times recruiting is just hard work and building a good rapport with the family and I knew he was a good person that could do that.
“But the big thing is he was passionate about the game and helping young people to be better. Chad was fortunate to grow up in a good home and become a good person. His life wasn’t easy, though, but he’s put his heart into coaching. Neal did a really good job training Chad, too. When Chad got to Troy, I told Neal to take him under his wing and teach him how to recruit. Neal is so meticulous and detail oriented and he instilled the same things in Chad.”
Franklin thought Schlarman was one of the “toughest and smartest” players he had even been around at Kentucky.
“I don’t think there was ever a tougher guy that played football. He was an undersized guy, but what I liked is you want a player who is an overachiever as a coach,” Franklin said. “Guys who the game comes easy for most times are not good coaches. They don’t get it and cannot teach it. For an overachiever like John, he gets it and understands it and can teach it to kids.
“I wanted him at Troy because he knew what we did and how we did it. I also believed in and knew he was a good human being. For me, when you are looking for a coach you want someone who is a good person, someone you want to share time with, someone you want be around their families. If not, I don’t want them coaching with me,” Franklin said. “Are they willing to learn or do they already think they know everything. A lot think they know and will not listen. I knew John would be a good listener and so does Neal.
“All these guys know each other already, know the system and know how to get along. They all want to be at Kentucky together and do great things. And they all will work their butts off to be successful because they don’t know any other way to do it and that’s what you want in a coach.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
No one should have a better idea what Kentucky’s new offensive coaching staff might do than Tony Franklin, the current offensive coordinator at California.
First, Franklin not only coached new UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown at Kentucky, but he also was coaching the same time new offensive line coach John Schlarman and new running backs coach Chad Scott were playing there. Second, Franklin brought Brown from Delaware to coach receivers when he took over as offensive coordinator in 2006. The next year he gave both Scott and Schlarman their first Division I coaching jobs.
“I couldn’t be happier it has worked out this way for all of them,” said Franklin, who has been offensive coordinator at Kentucky, Troy, Auburn, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech. “However, when you go home, and they all are because even Chad considers Kentucky home, it is always hard. I would tell them to just make sure you don’t take things too seriously. Enjoy this and have a good time. Relax and don’t listen to anyone except those who matter.
“Everybody is going to tell you who is the greatest kid ever at that school. It’s easy when you are in California and Texas to say thanks but when you are back home where you grew up, know the coaches, maybe know the parents, know the boosters, it’s harder to say now. You’ve got to be nice and gracious but also look people in the eye and say no. You want to be a good guy and have fun, but the bottom line is your legacy is attached to whether you win games or not. Every decision has to be made based on is what I’m doing going to help me win games. If that means I will irritate some people and make some angry, you still have to do it because winning is what you are there to do.”
Franklin, a western Kentucky native and former Kentucky high school coach, still remembers the first time he walked into Commonwealth Stadium as a UK coach on game day.
“I just looked in the stands and thought, ‘How cool is this?’ For these guys to come back to Kentucky, it’s going to be the same way,” Franklin said. “It’s a dream come true for them all I know all three really want to be there. If all three could pick any place in the world to be, Kentucky is where they would want to be. That’s why my wife and I are ecstatic for them.”
Brown took over as offensive coordinator at Troy when Franklin left for Auburn and has been at Texas Tech running one of the nation’s most productive offenses the last three years. Franklin said Brown’s success is no surprise.
“I knew him first as a player at Kentucky. His memories of how good he was and mine differ a bit,” Franklin laughed and said. “But he was an overachiever. He was a guy who ran 4.7 (seconds in the 40-yard dash), but he knew how to set up routes. He didn’t play a lot for us, but I helped him when he wanted to leave after Guy (Morris) took over (from Hal Mumme) and had no role for him. I helped him get to Massachusetts and he helped them win.
“We had a good relationship and Neal worked my (offensive) camp. I watched him work and knew he had talent. He played for me on the Horsemen and was actually a lot better there than at Kentucky. We had a lot of fun that year. When I hired him I knew I was getting a coach’s son who was smart and an overachiever and a gym rat who wanted to outwork everybody. He was passionate about being a great coach.”
Brown, 32, came to Troy to work for what Franklin said “was almost nothing” even though he was getting ready to be married. Brown quickly showed Franklin he could accept criticism and move on.
“I like a guy who is not afraid to be bold but when you tell him no he will not back up and never come up with another idea,” Franklin said. “I told Neal no a lot.”
It didn’t deter Brown. Franklin said every week Brown made his own offensive game plan to give Franklin.
“He was practicing calling plays and practicing being and offensive coordinator,” Franklin said. “On game day he did not say a lot, but when he did say something you listened.”
That paid off in their first year at Troy when the team needed a win over Middle Tennessee to claim the Sun Belt Conference and earn a New Orleans Bowl bid. Franklin said the game came down to a late play that would win or lose the game and Brown came to him with a “creative idea” for a play.
“He said, ‘I swear if you call the play, it will score.’ I called the play. Somebody with that much confidence, and it’s not like he talked all the time … and it was the game of our lives. Here was a 24-year-old kid calling a play and swearing it would work. I called the play, we scored and the rest is history,” Franklin said.
Troy head coach Larry Blakeney heard that play call discussion on his headset along with others and when Franklin left later for Auburn, he confidently promoted Brown.
“When he hired Neal at such a young age he didn’t care what anyone else thought,” Franklin said. “I was the same way. I gave him a chance and he took off and outdid me. All those kids have outdone me. Neal and I still have a great relationship, too. He will call and ask my opinion. He will not do what I tell him, but he will listen. He’s smart, mature and not afraid to ask questions. He’ll do great.”
Next: Franklin on Scott and Schlarman.
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.”