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November 7, 2012

Direct Kick: Who’s next for UK football?

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Kentucky football hasn’t really been relevant since 1984, when the Wildcats finished with a 9-3 record. In fact, since 1933, UK has won nine or more games only five times: 1949, 1950, 1976, 1977 and 1984. Twice under Bear Bryant, and twice under Fran Curci, although the 1977 team, which finished 10-1, was on probation.

Mired in a 1-8 season, the university announced Sunday the firing of head coach Joker Phillips, something that has been coming since the loss to Western Kentucky. Less than 20,000 in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium Saturday for the loss to Vanderbilt didn’t help.

Did Joker deserve to be fired? I’ve always had the feeling that a coach needs at least four years to see if they can get the job done. By that time the freshmen they recruited are now seniors, and that gives you a better idea on how things will be.

But I also understand UK wanting to appease its fan base. Win and win now. That’s how it is.

Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart announced the firing in an open letter to the Big Blue Nation on UK’s web site.

“After much conversation, evaluation and prayer, I have determined that it is in the best interest of our athletics program to make a change in our football coaching staff at the conclusion of the season. I do so with a heavy heart for a man who has served his alma mater for almost 22 years as a player and a coach. Joker Phillips has carried the banner for the Blue and White with honor and pride. I have enjoyed working alongside him and am thankful for his friendship for the last decade. His concern for the entire program, his work and teaching of young people, his humanitarian work, and the friendship we all enjoy with him will long surpass the scoreboard. I want to thank him for all of those things on behalf of Kentucky.”

So Joker is gone. The majority of UK fans seem to be happy with this decision, though there have been those who felt like he deserved at least one more year to turn things around.

Barnhart also said this: “Kentucky Football needs to be and will be a championship contender in the SEC.”

Good luck with that.

The first step, obviously, is to hire a coach that can do what Barnhart envisions. Names that have been thrown around include Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, former Boise State and Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter, WKU coach Willie Taggert, Florida assistant Brent Pease and Texas Tech assistant Neal Brown.

Sorry folks, but those just won’t do.

If you want to build UK into a contender, not a pretender, you will have to go after a big name. A really big name.

Dykes has had success at Louisiana Tech, where he is currently 21-13. He has ties to UK, as he was a graduate assistant in 1997 under Hale Mumme. He’s also been on staff at Texas Tech and Arizona. But having success at Louisiana Tech isn’t like having success at a larger FBS school.

Koetter was successful at Boise State (26-10 in three years), but that was in the Big West Conference. At Arizona State, where he coached six years, he was 40-34 while in a tougher Pac-10.

In three years at WKU, Taggert is 15-18. Enough said.

Tommy Tuberville’s name has surfaced, as has Bobby Petrino. Both are good coaches and have bigger names than those previously mentioned. But I think Petrino brings too much baggage with him.

Tuberville, meanwhile, might be the best choice. He coached Auburn in 2004 to a 13-0 season and won the SEC and the Sugar Bowl, but was left out of the BCS National Championship Game. And he is the only coach in Auburn history to beat Alabama six consecutive times. He has an overall coaching record of 129-74, and is 7-3 in bowl games. And he knows the SEC, and might just be looking for entry back into the best league in college football.

A wild card name I’ve heard is former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. Wouldn’t that be something if a Volunteer became a Wildcat?

Kentucky needs to do exactly what it did when it was looking for a new basketball coach: Get a big name that recruits will want to come and play for. They got that in John Calipari, and it paid off with a national championship last season.

When UK does hire a football coach, we will find out if they are serious about becoming a championship contender in football, or just happy with becoming bowl eligible each season.

It should be interesting over the upcoming weeks.

sports@sentinel-echo.com

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