If you get a chance to check it out, see if you can dig up the 60 Minutes story on college football that ran on tonight’s show. It was a fascinating look at the financial impact that college football has on a school’s bottom line, using Alabama and Michigan as two examples. Armen Keteyian (the CBS reporter) said near the end of the show, “at major universities in America, there is no more important hire a school can make than its college football coach.” This is undoubtedly true and why when it comes to the new coaching hire, the stakes for UK football’s future are tremendously high. As UK attempts to get a much-needed bonding capacity from the Ky State Legislature (the drama that will develop in December and January), the table has to first be set with a football coach that can lead the University going forward. UK football fans are frustrated and chances are that virtually anyone that is hired (absent a couple of people who won’t be hired), is going to have a hard time winning over the fan base from day one. But Mitch Barnhart’s decision will ultimately play out over the long term and we won’t know how to grade the final pick for some time.
But with that in mind, the search for information goes on. What follows is the best summary I can give from my week looking into the UK coaching search process. It is based on numerous conversations and my attempt to whittle down the information (some of which can be conflicting) into what I currently believe is happening. As we will do every Sunday night until we get a coach, here are questions (and attempted answers) about the current status of the UK coaching search:
1. Where Do We Stand As of Right Now?
While multiple false reports of “done deals” concerning the next UK coach have come and gone over the past couple of days, the reality is that the University isn’t yet even to the stage of offering even one person the job. From my sources on the subject, I am told that the “list” of coaching candidates for UK is now in the process of being finalized and only now, are they ready to start the process of actual interviewing/negotiating. Barnhart has spent the last two weeks doing an exhaustive search of candidates and trying to come up with the UK priority list. MANY representatives of many coaches have contacted the University with the hope of being considered, and it has taken these two weeks to come to some sort of direction going forward. As one source told me, “he (Barnhart) is very comfortable with where they are right now and the spot UK is in.”
2. Why Has So Little “Concrete” Info Leaked Out?
You have heard a number of names here and there, but for the most part, the search has not yielded any obvious pick for a frontrunner to be the next Kentucky coach. The reason for this is simple. Mitch Barnhart has intentionally kept this search very close to the vest. In fact, those sources that I have that are often the best fountains of information, have dried up for me in the past couple of days. As one person told me last week, “there has been a ‘don’t talk to anyone’ directive.” Part of this is the reality of the modern internet/social media world. As today’s Butch Jones rumor showcased, a story can go from random message board report to full-fledged school denial within an hour. And it is in the best interest of the school to have to deal with as little of such issues as possible. This is Kentucky’s first full-fledged hire in the Twitter era and with news moving at a minute by minute pace, secrecy is extremely important…ESPECIALLY when most of the candidates are still coaching teams. A lot of fans have mistaken the lack of information for a lack of due diligence or work, but I don’t think that is truly fair. What it represents, at least to me, is Barnhart’s CIA-like ability to keep information on the down low.
3. Should I Trust Barnhart/UK to Make a Good Decision?
This is the $64,000 question for most UK fans and the one that has caused the fan division on the subject. Many fans don’t trust the AD to make the correct call and thus they are skeptical of almost any names that come from him of which they are not familiar. I understand many of the criticisms of Barnhart and share a few of them myself. But on this particular point, I honestly don’t get it. When it comes to HIRING coaches, Barnhart has a pretty good track record. Yes, he screwed up Billy Clyde…but at the time, virtually everyone (outside of Mike Pratt) supported the hire. The Joker situation didn’t work, but a hard (and ultimately incorrect) call was made. However on all of his other sports, and Brooks/Calipari, success has occurred. One story to potentially give you a little faith. When Rich Brooks was hired, there were four names that were on Barnhart’s final list…Bill Parcells, Rich Brooks and Norm Chow you know. All three had pedigrees and fans knew something about them. But the fourth was a then-unknown coach who Barnhart liked and very nearly hired…that young coach’s name was Sean Payton. Had Barnhart hired Payton, many fans would have been livid, for they had no idea who he was. But Barnhart generally has a pretty solid eye for young talent. I may not have complete faith in Barnhart for some things (like dealing with boosters or fundraising), but for scouting coaching talent, his record is fairly solid.
4. What Does the List Look Like Right Now?
While most news about who the school’s “favorite” is right now has kind of dried up, I still think it can be said that UK has a list that is fairly defined. As it stands now (to the best of my knowledge), I think it looks like this:
Tier One: Kirby Smart, Sonny Dykes, Butch Jones, a NFL Unknown Name and Someone Else
I continue to hear that the top list has five people on it and I am fairly confident as to the first three. Smart and Dykes have been candidates from Day One and are targets of this staff. Butch Jones is a name that first emerged a few days ago and while he hasn’t been offered the job, I think he is definitely being considered (if he would consider UK). I continue to hear there is a NFL name, but I get multiple conflicting reports on who that name is. Todd Haley is the name that is repeated most often, but I have not heard it from anyone that I think has knowledge of the search. And because I am told that the main list has five people, I assume there is another name that I have not been able to verify. Who that is remains a mystery to me, but I assume it will likely come out sometime this week.
Tier Two: Kliff Kingsbury, Ron Caragher, Gary Andersen and Mike McIntyre
All four of these names have been mentioned to me as young guys that Barnhart really likes and believes will all be future great coaches. Each has had success very recently. Klingsbury has taken Johnny Football to a potential Heisman at Texas A&M, Caragher nearly got the Arizona job last year and is considered a great offensive mind and consistently leads the FCS in scoring and McIntyre took over a dead San Jose State program and has made it relevant. The guy to watch out of this group is Andersen, who beat Sonny Dykes in the “UK Coach Bowl” yesterday and is also being mentioned for some other big jobs (like Cal/Iowa) if they come open. Any one of these four could be on the first tier as that “fifth name”, but for now I place them here, as I know they are people Barnhart likes…to what degree, we don’t know.
5. Has UK Been Told “No” Yet by Anyone?
The answer to this is certainly yes. I have been told that UK contacted a number of “shoot for the moon” type names and got the polite “no thanks”, but that one of those names did engage in talks with the school. Where those talks went, or if they are still ongoing, I have not been able to determine. As for names that are on the above lists, one source has told me that UK got a “no thanks” from Kirby Smart. However for now, I leave him on the board until I get another confirmation that the Alabama Defensive Coordinator is a no-go.
6. What is the Deal with Phillip Fulmer?
This one baffles me. A number of media around Kentucky continue to list Phillip Fulmer as a serious candidate and Larry Glover had a source say they thought negotiations were taking place for his hire. I was told soon after that report that it was clearly false and from everything I can glean from the situation, Fulmer is not even a serious candidate. I of course could be wrong, as clearly there are many reporters in the state still pushing Fulmer’s name. But no one that I have spoken with has ever mentioned him to me as a serious candidate. So for now, I have to think he is not.
7. Was Bobby Petrino Ever a Candidate?
The Petrino debate and mystery is going to be one that will haunt whoever becomes the next UK coach for years to come. Short answer…I don’t know. I still find it highly unlikely that he is the next UK football coach and I continue to believe that the only circumstances in which he would get hired is if the UK administration truly believed that there was no other coach available who had any chance of success at UK. I don’t get the feeling that will be the case, but I do think that is why he has not been totally eliminated. I have heard a TON of information on Petrino and it is all over the board. His supporters have contacted me and told me everything from him wanting the UK job to only being publicly interested as leverage for other schools. Two people who claim to be Petrino’s close friends, both heard me talk about him on the radio and with an hour called to sell me on him. During the conversations, one told me that “four or five schools want Bobby” and another said to me, “I am not sure there is a BCS opening for him this year”. I honestly don’t know what to believe. What I do know, is that for Petrino to be at UK, there would have to be a seismic shift in the current state/mindset of the UK administration, from the Athletics Department to the President’s Office. You never say never, but I don’t think we are there just yet.
8. Are There Any Wildcard Names Still out There?
I think the answer to this is yes. I still believe that the same mindset that caused Mitch Barnhart to have Bill Parcells on a plane flying to Lexington to interview when he received the call from Jerry Jones, causes him to be shooting for the moon here as well. It would not surprise me at all if, likely after the Tennessee game next week, we hear of a home run type candidate that has real interest. But I would be surprised if we hear of it before that, and just as I would have never guessed Parcells nearly a decade ago, I am not sure who to guess this one will be either.
9. When Can We Expect a Decision?
I still think that we are a ways away. Since virtually every non-Petrino name we hear is still coaching their team, one has to assume that the regular season must end before a hire can be made. David Cutcliffe of Duke said today at a press conference that he will “definitely” be back at Duke next year. And likely Butch Jones will be asked a similar question tomorrow. Such is what happens when a name comes open while regular season games are being played and that is why I think we are still not close to a decision. The date for me is still December 15. If on that Friday, UK does not have a new coach announced, then that means either (a) they are holding out for a huge NFL name or (b) they have been turned down by a lot of folks. But either way, we are still a ways away.
More on this and the UK team getting ready for two games during Thanksgiving week tomorrow on the radio. See you then….