Fan support for football at Kentucky is much bigger than the nation realizes. Anytime the program squeezes out 6 wins, the stadium is packed. This is happening at a program that has an all-time record under .500. If anyone took the time to calculate attendance per wins, Kentucky would no doubt rank top 5. Kentucky fans are crazy about basketball because of the pride that comes with a winning tradition. Start winning football at Kentucky, and the sleeping giant will wake up.
As the rumors really start to swirl in the Bluegrass State — hello, Rex Ryan and Jim Tressel — we’ve been giving a little thought to what Kentucky needs to find as the school searches for Joker Phillips’ replacement. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said earlier this week that the Cats need a James Franklin-style recruiter who can sell a traditionally inferior product to talented teenaged recruits. When your last nine coaches have left town with overall losing records, there’s no doubt about that.
But UK needs more than just a salesman. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart needs to find the right salesman. So what would such a hire bring to the table? These:
1. The ability to recruit
Over the past 25 years, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has produced 56 NFL draft picks. Not the University of Kentucky, mind you, but the entire state. Of all the high school football players from the Bluegrass State, only 56 have been drafted into the pro ranks between 1988 and 2012. That’s the smallest talent base in the Southeastern Conference. The state of Arkansas has produced 58 draft picks. Missouri has produced 74. Tennessee 99.
Like every other school in the league, past Wildcat coaches have blazed a trail to Georgia and Florida in search of future stars. The next staff will have to do the same. That doesn’t mean a series of 4- and 5-star recruits will need to walk through the doors of the Nutter Training Facility, but the Cats will not compete so long as they’re inking 1- and 2-star players. The next coach needs to bring in more than his fair share of 3-star athletes. (And no, recruiting rankings aren’t perfect, but the better a signee’s ranking, the better the chance that your school will have inked a solid player.)
2. Connections to Ohio and Pennsylvania
While UK doesn’t have a good home turf in terms of prospects, the school does have one advantage over every other school in the conference — it’s closer to the recruiting hot zones of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia than any other SEC institution. As we’ve noted on this site before, Kentucky will need to mine those areas — tip of the cap to the coal industry — if it’s ever to win consistently.
While Kentucky high schools have produced just 56 pro draft picks over the past quarter-century, Ohio’s schools have churned out 258. Virginia has produced another 185. Pennsylvania has cranked out 184. Ohio State owns the Buckeye State. But in the past 25 years, the University of Cincinnati has produced 31 NFL picks and 14 came from Ohio. UK has produced just 41 picks and only one of those players came from Ohio. There’s no reason Kentucky of the SEC can’t compete with Cincinnati for Ohio-grown talent.
Pennsylvania has long been owned by Penn State, but we all know what sanctions that program is facing in future years… that’s an opening for UK. Virginia — specifically the Tidewater area — has been owned by Virginia Tech. Fine, but there’s no reason UK can’t win a battle or two against that state’s flagship school.
Kentucky’s next coach had better have some ties — either on his own or via his staff — to the north and east of the Commonwealth. If UK could supplement its usual collection of Kentuckians and Georgia and Florida leftovers with a few prospects from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, you’d start to see some improvement in Wildcat football.
The selling point to such recruits is obvious: You wanna play in the Big Ten or ACC… or you wanna play on national television every week in the league that produces more NFL draftees than any other?
3. An in-check ego
There’s no such thing as a millionaire coach without an ego. They don’t exist. But the Cats will need to find someone with the ability to put his ego in check. Regardless of how successful he’s been or even how much success he has in Lexington, the next coach will always be the football coach at a basketball school. Come every October, the media in Kentucky will turn its attention to basketball. Fans will line up to get tickets to the first basketball practice of the season. That’s just how big Kentucky basketball is. There’s no changing it or fighting it and the next coach had better know it and embrace it.
During a radio show with me this morning, Kentucky play-by-play man Tom Leach provided the perfect example of my point… in reverse. “Billy Donovan at Florida,” he said. Exactly. Donovan hasn’t always been thrilled with the fan support his teams have gotten, but he’s never tried to escape the shadow of Florida football (at least without quickly changing his mind and coming back).
John Calipari is successful enough both as a coach and as a carnival-barker — that’s a compliment, not an insult — to assist the next man up. The new coach should embrace his help. Barnhart needs to find a football version of Donovan.
4. A track record of success
Kentucky cannot afford to go the up-and-comer route again. UK’s most successful coaches of the past 30 years had had success elsewhere before landing in Lexington. Jerry Claiborne (1982-89) had won at Virginia Tech and Maryland in his pre-Kentucky days. Rich Brooks (2003-09) had built Oregon’s program and then gone to the NFL.
Now, I’ll grant you that Bill Curry’s success at Alabama didn’t carry over, but remember, he had a losing record at Georgia Tech prior to his quickie three-year reign in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart might turn out to be the next Nick Saban, but Barnhart can’t afford to roll the dice on someone who’s never held a head coaching job. He tried that with Phillips. If he swings and misses again, it could be his own head on the chopping block.
5. A flashy offense
This is actually a three-fold issue. First, UK must address the enormous decline in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium. Even at hoops-mad Kentucky, football still foots the bill for all the other sports. Barnhart has to find someone who’ll excite the fanbase and the quickest way to do that is to find someone who brings an explosive offensive scheme with him.
In addition, the rules of football are slanting more and more toward the offense these days. Up-tempo, no-huddle, spread-passing attacks are all the rage and until the NCAA starts putting in rules to slow things down, that trend is likely to continue.
Also, some pass-first masters are able to get more production out of lesser-ranked recruits. From Mike Leach to Bobby Petrino, some coaches can scheme their way to big points and big yards even without Top 10 recruiting classes. For that matter, how many successful NFL quarterbacks and receivers has Steve Spurrier produced during his career?
Barnhart should be looking for an offensive guru, not the next Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant is the greatest coach in SEC history — OK, Bama fans, galactic history — but he cut short his own stay in Lexington much to the chagrin of Wildcat fans of that era. At a quarterback club in 1950, Bryant famously said:
“We never have many good football players in Kentucky. It’s all basketball at Kentucky. From teh time a boy is born, he is taught how to dribble. The other night we had a joint basketball-football banquet and Adolph Rupp was presented with a big, four-door Cadillac. All I got was a cigarette lighter.”
Now, it’s pretty clear that Bryant was joking to the quarterback club he was speaking to, but three years later he still split town for Texas A&M, which suggests there might’ve been a little bit truth behind his quip.
UK doesn’t have to find the next “best coach in history.” Kentucky needs to find a man who can recruit, who has ties to the fertile grounds to the north and east, who’s comfortable living in basketball’s shadow, and who’s proven that he can put fannies in seats with a flashy offensive system that turns three-star players into NFL draft picks.
If you’re asking me — and Barnhart hasn’t — I’d tell him to hold his nose and hire Petrino. He should lock him into a long-term deal with a massive escape clause and force him to hire a proven defensive coordinator with ties to Ohio, Pennsylvania or Virginia.
Will Kentucky’s AD do that? Probably not. But whoever he hires had better bring with him a majority of the five things we mentioned above. If he doesn’t, history might just repeat itself all over again. And Barnhart could be shown the door next.