Even before yesterday’s once-in-a-quarter-century win over Tennessee, seen by what the UT radio team I was listening to described as a near-half capacity crowd at Commonwealth Stadium, Mitch Barnhadt claimed his mind was made up to bring Joker Phillips back for a third season as head coach at Kentucky. And I believe that do be the correct decision, despite all the stuff I’m about to write. While it’s impossible to describe Joker’s first two seasons as head coach as anything other than disappointing, firing him after two seasons sets a troublesome precedent and would likely do more harm than good to the program’s long-term chances of success.
Here’s why: Kentucky just isn’t a very attractive job. Yes, it’s D-I. Yes, it’s in the SEC. But, no, it does not give an emerging (or for that matter, established) head coaching talent a reasonable chance at success. To put it mildly, anyone who takes on the head football job at UK faces an increasingly steep uphill battle. Kentucky Athletics board member Ballard Cassady, through his op-ed piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader and his interview on Kentucky Sports Television, has done a masterful job of explaining why the University of Kentucky is at such a structural disadvantage in football when compared to the rest of the SEC. In summation it boils down to this: Because of the way the athletics department is structured at UK, obtaining public funding for the purpose of facility construction is virtually impossible. In addition, the vast majority of the private funding is directed to basketball. With literally no public funding and very little private funding, there’s just not much money left over for Kentucky to upgrade its football facilities. And facilities are integral to a coach’s ability to recruit (and subsequently succeed). In that regard Joker Phillips and the UK coaching staff are bringing knives to gunfights when it comes to recruiting top-flight talent to the program.
When you combine the facilities problem with the fact that Kentucky as a state produces minimal high school football talent (which it essentially splits with U of L), you begin to understand why there are many out there (myself included) who believe Kentucky reached its ceiling under Rich Brooks. Seven or eight wins per season on a consistent basis is likely as good as it’s going to get. If the stars and the moon and the remaining remnants of the universe were to somehow align – for instance, if you could place Kentucky’s 2007 team in the 2011 SEC – I think nine or ten wins and an East Division title is achievable. But that would require a once-in-a-generation recruiting class to come along at a time when Florida, Tennessee and Georgia are all by their standards down, South Carolina is strong but beatable, and two of our three games from the West are Mississippi State (UK’s permanent) and Ole Miss. Could Andre Woodson and Co. have rattled off nine or ten wins this season? It’s possible. They’d need to go 4-0 in their non-conference, take one of three from the murderer’s row of Florida-LSU-South Carolina, then beat Mississippi State and Ole Miss at home before needing to win two of three to close the year at Vandy, at Georgia, and Tennessee at home. Even with the best Kentucky team of my lifetime against a favorable SEC schedule, nine wins sounds tough and ten sounds unlikely.
But let’s bring it back to Joker. On top of it being the right thing to do (as laughable as even I think that sounds in the realm of college athletics), I think a third year for him is what’s best for the program. For one, I still think Joker could be the guy. While it hasn’t translated to on-field success, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that in three years he’s recruited as well as any head coach in school history. Guys who recruit well at Kentucky don’t exactly grow on trees. For two, firing a guy after two years sets a precedent that makes a bad job even worse from the perspective of outside candidates.
Ballard does an excellent job of explaining in his interview why hiring a big name coach is likely not in the cards for Kentucky. For prospective coaches, it’s less about the money and more about the opportunity for success. Throw in a two-and-done precedent with the other road blocks to victory the UK job creates and I believe you scare off not only the established but also the up-and-coming. I doubt Kentucky has the wherewithal to lure a big-name assistant like Gus Malzahn away from Auburn, but I do think it could potentially nab someone like Arkansas State head coach Hugh Freeze (who Ole Miss is reportedly interested in). But if someone like Freeze, a strong candidate with options, takes a look at UK, an imperfect job that is still an obvious step up, and sees a school that gives its coaches a two-year window for success, I don’t know how that doesn’t decrease his interest.
And while I’m rooting for Joker to succeed next season, an objective look at our schedule makes it hard to have a great deal of optimism. This was the season for Joker to make his mark. The entire offensive line was back, and the schedule was as favorable as it’s going to get in the SEC. If Joker’s measure of success (and requirement for a fourth season) is six wins and a bowl next year, I have a hard time seeing it happen.
We don’t yet know exactly what UK’s schedule will look like next year because of the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, but assuming SEC teams play an eight-game conference schedule and Missouri joins the East, UK’s schedule will look something like this.
They’ll open the season at Louisville (likely a loss), then follow that with a pair of home games against Kent State and Western Kentucky (two likely wins). But then it gets a little tricky and a lot tougher. Order unknown, Kentucky’s SEC schedule will include home games against Georgia (loss), South Carolina (loss) and Vandy (swing game). Road matchups at Florida (loss), Tennessee (swing game) and Mississippi State (swing game) will be sprinkled in, while UK will round out its SEC slate with new East division foe Missouri (likely loss) and one more SEC West team, most likely LSU or Arkansas. Which of the two latter two games will be a home contest is TBD. Kentucky also has one more non-conference game against Samford (WIN!) the weekend prior to the season finale.
That puts the number of probable wins (i.e., the games Kentucky will be favored in) at three. The season opener at Louisville is crucial. Drop that one and the battle goes from uphill to near-impossible. The other swing games are Mississippi State in Starkville, Vandy at home, and Tennessee in Knoxville, only one of which (Vandy) does Kentucky have much of a shot to be favored. If Kentucky can somehow beat U of L and go 4-0 in the non-conference then they’d need to come up with two more wins to become bowl eligible. Vandy at home is probably Kentucky’s most winnable of its remaining swing games. That puts us at five, meaning we’d need to win either at Mississippi State or at Tennessee to have a chance at a bowl. There’s always an outside chance we get Ole Miss as our second SEC West game, but since we’ve played them now two straight seasons you have to think it’s going to be someone other than the Rebels (read: Loss).
How confident do you feel with that schedule? My gun-to-the-head prediction for Kentucky’s win total next season: Four. I think we drop Louisville, get the other three outside of the SEC, then get one either against Vandy in Commonwealth or to end the year at Tennessee. I don’t see UK winning at Starkville or even at home to Missouri. The Tigers are currently bowl eligible at 7-5 with a win over Texas earlier in the year.
So what’s next for UK football? Although Joker’s back, at least two assistants are rumored to be gone. You have to believe offensive coordinator Randy Sanders is one of them, and that’s a shame. Sanders came to UK from Tennessee in 2006 as the quarterbacks coach and had an immediate impact on Andre Woodson and the UK offense. But UK’s offense was atrocious this year, and someone has to fall on the sword. Most of the buzz centers on receivers coach Tee Martin being promoted to fill Sanders’ spot, despite the fact that Kentucky’s receivers this year were horrible.
If there’s one reason to be optimistic it’s that Joker’s been in a nearly identical situation before. He, with Sanders’ help, turned a struggling UK offense into one of the best in country in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. He said as much in a press conference in early October.
“I got this job because I took a struggling offense and fixed it – and won a lot of games after getting it fixed. I’m at that point now. I’ve got to get this struggling offense fixed. We’ve got to get this thing fixed – and fixed in a hurry.”
I’m rooting for Joker. I just don’t know if I’m betting on him.