For a little over a week now, I have known that the likelihood of Joker begin replaced today was high. But that doesn’t mean that the final announcement of the news was not sad to hear. Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium was the lowest moment of a pretty difficult three years and was the final nail in a coaching coffin that had been pieced together consistently since the BBVA Compass Bowl two years ago. I have spent the better part of the afternoon and evening (outside of the two hours at the UK-Transy Dinner) on the phone getting information. With that in mind, here are 10 Common Questions about the UK Football Coaching Situation with my best attempt at answers to them:
1. When Was the Decision About Joker Phillips Made?
Anyone who has followed UK football this season knew that the ground was shaky following the loss to Western Kentucky in the third week of the season. However, I do believe that Mitch Barnhart wanted to find a way to give Joker another year, a year in which most around the program believe the young players can develop to help the team take a leap forward. But beginning with the loss at Arkansas, that position became much less tenable. While the blowout in Fayetteville led many around the program to begin accepting the reality that Joker’s time could be coming to an end, I don’t believe Mitch Barnhart was ready to make the call until after the game in Columbia. The performance there was sloppy, the team looked ill-prepared and a possible win turned into a blowout loss against a bad team. I advocated the announcement should occur on that Monday, as I believed the final decision to terminate had been made last Sunday. But it was held off until the Vandy game and after the 40-0 loss in an empty stadium, Barnhart became convinced it had to occur today.
2. Will Joker Phillips Coach the Last Two Games?
I am told that the initial thought was no, as Joker Phillips believed his presence could be a distraction to the players. But the outpouring of kind sentiments expressed by UK fans towards Joker since the announcement, might change this before the game in two weeks. Practice kicks back off on Tuesday, so Joker Phillips will make his decision by tomorrow. Those around the program hope he will stay and that the #PackCommonwealth movement can lead to a better final moment for Joker and the Seniors than occurred against Vandy. But we won’t know for sure until tomorrow.
3. What is the First Step for the Hiring Process?
From what I am told, the first step is what I could call “figuring out your options.” Over the next week, those in charge of the search will begin figuring out what individuals are realistic targets and the order in which they will be approached. Barnhart has previously said that he always keeps a top 5 list of coaching candidates for all jobs and it is certainly the case that he knows many directions he wants to go in. I am told that the search is being kept internal, but that viewpoints are being looked at from people outside the program and in the greater UK football family. The final decision maker will be Barnhart, with a final check from Eli Capilouto, but I expect more people to be called upon to voice their opinion than may have been the case in the past.
4. Should we Listen to the Leaked Names that Come out?
This is a difficult question, and it depends on what you are using the leaked names for. Because I believe a number of people may have their opinions asked for, those same people will likely leak the names of the people they suggested…but that doesn’t mean the person is a real candidate. I put zero stock for instance in the Pat Forde “coaching list” (does anyone really believe that Forde, who is HATED by those in the UK sports administration, would have any source that is truly in a decision-making role?) and most such lists will have more to do with who is talking than the real decision being made. But with that said, I think a lot of the names being bandied about are real names that will be considered.
5. Will Mitch Go for a “Home Run” hire?
I think the answer to this question is certainly yes. I am told from a number of close sources that Barnhart sees this as a “make or break” moment for the UK football program and wants to swing for the fences. Now just because he wants a big name, doesn’t mean that UK can get one, but Barnhart will try for names that on the surface seem WAY out of UK’s league. As one source told me, “I think it is time for a high risk, high reward kind of hire and that is what we may see.” Part of what the next two weeks will be about is figuring out if any of the huge names that seem out of reach, could theoretically be in reach…and then trying to go down that path. Between now and Samford, this is where the primary emphasis will be.
6. Will Bobby Petrino be Considered?
From all of my conversations, the answer to this question seems to be no. Barnhart won’t eliminate Petrino completely, but he won’t be among the first or second tier group of guys considered. My guess is that if the search goes amok and they are not able to find a coach that they feel confident can inject passion into the program, Petrino could be a final option…but I don’t believe he will be considered early in the process or that he is anything close to a high priority.
7. Will UK Spend Money on a Big Name Coach?
Mitch Barnhart addressed this on my show last summer, but I had three people all verify it for me again today. If the right coach is out there, “money will not be an issue.” I am told that the University won’t just spend a ton of money on a coach just to do it, but if they feel they can hire a coach who is worth it, they could make him one of the highest paid coaches in the game.
8. So Who Are “Big Name” Candidates for the Job?
The answer to this question is both easy and hard. On the easy side, I legitimately think that Barnhart will be talking to coaches that we all believe have ZERO chance of coming here. Thus virtually all “big names” will be theoretical candidates. But which “big names” might actually consider the job? That is what the next few weeks of exploring are about. I am told however that three big names that are on the radar and that UK believes would consider the job are Kirby Smart, Rex Ryan and Mike Leach. I have doubts about the first two truly being interested and the third being someone Mitch Barnhart would hire in the end, but I think they are all being considered. But I am also certain that there are big names we don’t know about being called and inquired about…and over time, one or two of those names may come out.
9. If Not a “Big Name,” Then Who?
This is the 64,000 question and if we are being honest about it, the likely group of candidates where a coach will be found. I am told that the “high risk, high reward” philosophy is gaining steam among those around the process and that the idea of hiring a coach with “experience in the SEC” or as I like to call them, “a retread” is diminishing in possibility. I continue to hear that Sonny Dykes is the favorite of those around the program and if I were a betting man, I would put him as the early favorite for the job. But his odds are still high, due to the amount of names still being considered. San Jose State Coach Mike MacIntyre is another such name that Mitch Barnhart also has some interest in as well. David Cutcliffe will likely get an interview, but I see as more of a second-tier, last resort type of candidate. As one source told me tonight, “if Mitch can’t get a big name, or the young guys he really likes (such as Dykes), then I think he interviews a ton of young college and NFL minds and looks for the one who can inject excitement and new energy into the program while trying to make a name for himself.” I like that philosophy.
10. What is the time frame for a hire?
I don’t expect the hire to occur immediately, but it also will not linger. UK understands that three prime SEC jobs will likely come open (Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas) and all are likely more attractive to coaching candidates. So UK wants to move as quickly as possible. However a lot of the guys UK wants will be involved in bowl games/NFL season between now and UK would like to have a hire announced. Bottom line, I believe the search will move quickly, but when an announcement occurs will depend on the candidate pursued. The reality is that the right coach may take some time, but starting the process early, as UK can now do, helps immensely.
From my perspective, that is where we are. We will have more about names and the process tomorrow on the show. For now, the Joker Phillips era has ended and we all are a bit sad. But what the program needs now more than anything is a sense of unity from its fanbase about the future. The next two months are the most important two months in 20 years for UK football. This hire, and the work towards funding for Football facility renovation in Dec-Jan will decide whether UK football can make positive steps in the future. One book has closed, but another is beginning. What happens over the next two months decides whether the new book is positive, but the best (and only) things that fans can do now is shed the debates of the past and unify towards a common goal…moving Kentucky football in a positive direction.