THE POSITION OF head football coach at the University of Kentucky is not the dream job for many people.
For Joker Phillips, it was.
Over 23 seasons, first as a player, then in two stints as a UK assistant and three years as head coach, Phillips put his heart into Kentucky football.
The announcement Sunday by UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart that Phillips has been fired with two games left in his third season was a move that needed to be made. Still, it is sad to see Phillips’ run at “his school” end in such a way.
Before we launch full bore into speculating on what UK should do next, what should not be lost is that, as Kentucky coach, Phillips produced two of the mammoth moments in UK sports history.
Under Joker, UK ended the 26-year losing streak to Tennessee and its oh-for-all-eternity schneid against Steve Spurrier.
This season, even as things went bad in a big way (1-9, 0-7 SEC), Phillips handled himself with class and professionalism.
Moving forward, anyone who thinks that changing coaches is all that is needed to significantly alter the historic arc of UK football has not been paying attention.
At 12-23, Phillips is the ninth straight Kentucky football coach to leave the school with a losing record.
Charlie Bradshaw. John Ray. Fran Curci. Jerry Claiborne. Bill Curry. Hal Mumme. Guy Morriss. Rich Brooks. Joker Phillips.
Solving the football riddle at a school that has not had a winning record in the SEC since Jimmy Carter slept in the White House (1977) has now eluded 50 years of Kentucky coaches.
So what should UK and Barnhart do now?
Let’s eliminate the pie-in-the-sky names. There is no rational reason why Jon Gruden or Tony Dungy or Chris Petersen would consider one of the most difficult head coaching jobs in all of football.
Still, there are two “big names” to discuss.
From the time Bobby Petrino was at Louisville, my read on him has been 1.) the best offensive strategist I’ve ever seen; 2.) a guy with a habitual inability to tell the truth. It’s understandable why so many downtrodden UK football fans are casting longing eyes at Bobby P., but there is way too much baggage there for my taste.
Ex-UK assistant Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech head man, is in his first season at Washington State. If Kentucky called, would Leach considering bailing on the Cougars after one year?
In my lifetime, the two UK coaches who both fielded competitive teams and did so without getting Kentucky on NCAA probation were the well-seasoned duo of Jerry Claiborne and Rich Brooks.
If mature is the direction Kentucky wants to go now, David Cutcliffe (Duke coach), Tommy Tuberville (Texas Tech) or Phillip Fulmer (ex-Tennessee) would fit that bill.
Cutcliffe, who won as Mississippi head man and has Duke (6-4) bowl-eligible in 2012, has the most experience coaching in difficult football situations similar to UK.
There is a school of thought that, at Kentucky, one needs to play in an unconventional manner to succeed.
Pass-happy Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, a former UK graduate assistant under Mumme, would fit that bill. He is leading an 8-1 team that is averaging 52.4 points and 571 yards per game.
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter spent three seasons as coach at Boise State (26-10) and six at Arizona State (40-34 before being fired). Koetter and his unpredictable play-calling have been given much credit for the Falcons’ sizzling start in 2012.
Should UK really want to go bold, it could look at Neal Brown, the ex-UK wide receiver (lettered 1998, 2000). The youthful Texas Tech coordinator is overseeing a pass-heavy offense that is producing 38 points and 500 yards a game for a 6-3 team.
Finally, Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart is an impressive young coach who has built a winner in Bowling Green. Would UK consider a coach from another instate school? Should ex-Stanford assistant Taggart, with his ties to the Harbaugh family coaching tree, hold out for a better job than Kentucky?
Were it my task to pick the next ’Cats coach, I’d go with a pass-oriented up-and-comer and try to catch a rising star on his way up.
Kentucky has not made a football hire that, at its announcement, excited its fan base since C.M. Newton lured Bill Curry away from Alabama in 1990.
If nothing else, it would be nice if Barnhart could hire a coach who would put a jolt of excitement into a dispirited fan base.