Mitch Barnhart made the right move to announce, three weeks before the end of the season, that Joker Phillips would not be back at UK next season. While *Tennessee, Auburn, and Arkansas still have decisions or formal announcements to make, Kentucky now has a chance to make a good hire before their league rivals have the chance to do so. Kentucky needed something to give them an edge over the other SEC teams who are likely to be hiring new coaches as well. The edge Kentucky has given themselves is time. Time is on the Cats side, and if they want to fully take advantage of being the only available BCS job in the country at this time, they should set an anticipated start date of early December.
[*Edit: Derek Dooley reportedly out at Tennessee, but there has yet to be a formal announcement]
Many think UK has enough young, talented players to have the chance to be good next year if healthy. There are a lot of “if’s” involved, but if they get the right coach, keep current talent on the roster, and settle with the right quarterback as the starter going forward, there is a chance of the new era of Kentucky football starting out successfully. The first step in winning next year is to get the new staff to Lexington in December. Not only would this help with the continuity of the program, but it pressures some of the top coaching targets to consider jumping on the UK job before other school’s jobs may open up.
Whether UK hires a former head coach not currently coaching anywhere (I’ll let you throw out these names in the comments section), or a hot, up-and-coming coordinator, there isn’t much reason why a decision has to wait much further into the middle of December. The longer UK waits, the less coaches they will have to choose from as the coaching carousel becomes more clear. At this time, UK should aim for the top coordinators in the college game, and yes, take a look at a couple of coaches who may not be coaching at the moment. These are the coaches who Kentucky could realistically hire as soon as possible and start to move forward into next season with a staff in place.
An offensive or defensive coordinator could theoretically agree to terms before their season is over, finish coaching the remaining regular season games, and elect not to call plays in their team’s upcoming bowl game. A current head coach somewhere may also elect not to coach in a bowl game if they took the Kentucky job, but it’s unlikely you are going to have much contact with a head coach until their regular season is over. If the regular season ends, and UK has still not found the right guy for the job, then at that point I think Barnhart should open up the search to NFL coaches and talk more with current college coaches. At this time, Kentucky’s focus should probably be (and probably is) on the top college coordinators (young, full of energy, connected in recruiting, and with a track record of success) who are looking to be a head coach and willing to pull the trigger early and get to work in Lexington as soon as possible. By no means should Kentucky settle for someone early in the process, but the strongest candidate they may be able to hire could be before other schools come into the picture.