I actually would love to write about the UK-Maryland game, as the story of Jarrod Polson and his improbable rise to star of the game was fascinating. But, since I spent the last two days in Manhattan, others have tread that path already. So we will do what will continue to be the feature every Sunday until a new UK football coach is hired…10 questions and answers on the UK football coaching search. These answers all come after a Sunday filled with conversations with those around the program and familiar with the process:
1. Why is Joker Phillips Coaching in the Final Week of the Season?
The end of the Joker Phillips era was very emotional for everyone around the UK football program. Sunday and Monday of last week saw Joker having extensive conversations with many around the University, including the President, Barnhart, Calipari and other administrators. Phillips had no desire to coach the final two games because he believed that he would be a distraction to the team and it would make things more difficult for the players. Barnhart pressed Joker to reconsider the position and asked him to take time to think about it. After getting a great deal of positive feedback from friends and those around the program, he became convinced that there was a benefit to him coaching the last two games and that his presence would not be a distraction. He called Mitch Barnhart on Monday night and let him know that he would finish out the season and immediately began work on preparing for Samford. With the leadership for the rest of the season taken care of, Barnhart began the work of finding his replacement.
2. Is There Interest in the UK Football Coaching Job?
I am told that the preliminary interest from coaching candidates has shocked some around the program. One source told me, “Matt, you would not believe the people that have come out of the woodwork at this point. They are everywhere.” However there are a couple of qualifications and caveats that must be remembered. First, many of those who have contacted the University (mostly through agents) are not candidates that UK would have any interest in hiring. As one source familiar with such searches told me, “the moment a job comes open, people who can’t get any job try to convince you that this is the right one for them.” But second, some of the people who have made contact through representatives may themselves have ulterior motives. The moment that a name is attached to the UK job as a candidate, that coach becomes a hotter commodity for other schools and his asking price can go up across the board. A name being attached to any SEC school, yes even Kentucky, is an agent’s dream and many names being mentioned (and leaked) to various press outlets are done in the hopes that of driving overall interest in the candidate, regardless of UK’s actual interest.
3. Does UK Have a “List” at This Point?
By all indications, the answer to this question is yes. While I do believe that other options may end up being considered, I am told by a source that there are “4 to 5 top candidates” right now. The folks around the program are comfortable that the final coach can come from this list and the next week or so will be spent attempting to prioritize it. I am told that there are “names that would surprise you” on the list, and a couple of names that have been bandied about in the public as well.
4. Who is On the List?
At this point, two names that I am confident are on the list are Sonny Dykes, the coach at Louisiana Tech and Kirby Smart, the Defensive Coordinator at Alabama. Both have been part of the process from the beginning and are favorites of Barnhart and those around the program. Because my source has said that a couple of names on the list are those “bandied about in public”, I think it is reasonable to suggest that these are the two that qualify. As for the other names, I have heard wild suggestions from a number of people, but no name has been mentioned enough for me to take it seriously as a credible candidate. I do think Mike Leach was at one point on the list, but the events of this past weekend have taken him off the list. As one source told me, “Look, character matters. And you just can’t take a chance at this point on having a repeat of the past.” My assumption is that the second sentence is a reference to the Gillispie years.
5. What About David Cutcliffe?
If you don’t believe the public opinion matters, the saga of Cutcliffe proves otherwise. When the announcement of Joker’s departure was first made, I, and others, suggested that Dykes and Cutcliffe were early favorites. However UK fans (and boosters) expressed near unanimous disapproval of Cutcliffe’s name as another “run of the mill, retread” coach who would excite no one. That sentiment has been felt throughout the Athletic Department and every word that I have heard about Cutcliffe since has been negative about his chances in Lexington. Creating excitement in the program is part of this hiring process and Cutcliffe fails miserably in that regard. I now think he is low on the list.
6. What About Bobby Petrino?
This is the $64,000 question and the one that has dominated fan talk throughout the past weekend. From all of my conversations, I still believe this fact is true. I would be shocked at this point to see Mitch Barnhart hire Bobby Petrino. While fans understandably are excited about what Petrino can bring on the field, worries about off the field and overall character concerns make it nearly impossible for me to see Barnhart pulling the trigger on his own accord. There are many people that have to make such a determination, including the President, and from what I can tell in my conversations, none involved in the direct hiring process are positive on Petrino. He has burned many bridges in the state of Kentucky from his time in Louisville and those chickens are coming home to roost on this hire. Barnhart knows that many in the fan base are for the hire, but there is also a vocal minority who have contacted the school against the hire, including many of the older fans who dont populate the internet. As one source told me, “people are either all in or all out…few people express ambivalence.”
7. So Does that Mean There is No Chance Petrino Ends up in Lexington?
There is very little chance that Petrino ends up in Lexington. But I can’t say there is NO chance, because there is a group of powerful folks who want to make it happen. A number of boosters and those very close to the University Administration are making their pro-Petrino voices heard and there is a lot of energy from these folks to have him considered. A number of these folks are pushing this belief through certain media sources (which has led to the various interviews you have seen from prominent Petrino supporters in local media…I expect you will see more in the coming week) and they are in contact with Bobby Petrino’s agent, family, etc. I still would be flabbergasted to see Mitch Barnhart make a hire of Bobby Petrino…but I can’t say that it is impossible he might theoretically end up the coach, because of the amount of highly influential people who are beating the Petrino drum. Bottom line, if you were creating an odds board in Vegas, Bobby P shouldn’t be the favorite or in the top 3-4…but I won’t take him off the board in case things get wild in the coming weeks.
8. Matt, Do You Think UK Should Take Petrino?
I continue to read those that believe I individually, or KSR collectively, is against hiring Petrino as the coach. That is not the case. What I will continue to do during this hiring process is report what I hear and as often as possible, leave my opinions out of it. The reason is simple…I am not sure about Petrino. Before hiring a high level coach of a major program, I think you have to do your due diligence and determine whether the person is right for the job both professionally and personally. Professionally, Petrino looks to me (an uneducated football fan) as being more than capable. But I don’t know the history of his ending at Arkansas, his relations with admins, players, etc at other schools, his demands, his willingness to compromise, his vision for the program, etc that would be required to offer him the job. Absent this knowledge, I can’t judge (beyond just yelling my opinion to the highest heavens) intelligently. I see a lot of benefits to Petrino…I see a lot of potential drawbacks. And unless I am in the room when the guy is interviewed (which I won’t be), then I can’t say for sure whether he should be the coach or not. Whatever opinions others have, I understand. But for me, on this issue I am at this point, agnostic. On the field, Petrino is a no-brainer. Off the field, it is a much harder call and I don’t have the information I need to decide at this point.
9. What is the Real Impact of this Bobby Petrino Talk?
The Bobby Petrino talk is fun, a talk radio host’s dream (because of the strong feelings) and a lot of fun to speculate about on a daily basis. But here is what it is doing more than anything…making people overlook the real candidates to the job. If Petrino ends up the coach at Kentucky, it will be because of a seismic shift in the overall landscape of UK Athletics. I don’t see it happening. What I do see potentially happening is fans and the media focusing on the Bobby Petrino windmill, while the actual coaching search goes on behind the scenes. And who knows, that might be the best possible thing for UK anyway as when names get leaked, sometimes the job becomes more difficult.
10. What is the Time Frame for a Decision?
No decision is likely to be made until at least after the regular season is over. There are coaches still coaching that UK will want to consider and the process is accelerated, but not yet rushed. I am told that the goal is to have a coach in place by two weeks after the SEC Title Game. That seems reasonable to me and would allow for consideration and interviewing of all but a few NFL head coaches. Since I believe only one current NFL coach has even been considered in the larger list of names (Rex Ryan), this shouldn’t be a problem…by Dec 15, a coach should be in place.
BONUS 11. Is There an Odds-On Favorite?
In my estimation, the odds-on favorite is still Sonny Dykes. This may change in the coming weeks as interviews/exploration continues and new names (like Kliff Klingsbury) emerge. But if you were placing a bettor’s favorite on someone, Dykes would be that guy…but the odds would still be long…like 7/2. There are at least 2-3 top candidates who I don’t know…until I do, the odds of any particular coach being hired remain long for me.
That is all for now…we will talk more about these issues (including a little more detail on those forces pushing for Petrino) and the basketball game on the radio and blog tomorrow. Have a big night folks.