Fans and coaches alike have been bitterly disappointed in the football team this year, and understandably so. With the 54-3 debacle at South Carolina now sinking in, there are lots of reflections going on about how to fix what is unquestionably broken. Most of them can be broken down as follows:
- Replace the coach with a new one, preferably a big name by offering a large, multi-year, multi-million dollar contract;
- Replace the offense with something more exciting and something more suited to the type of players Kentucky has;
- Replace the offensive coordinator;
- Burn a bunch of freshman redshirts in hopes of finding a dynamic playmaker;
- A combination of one or more of the above.
All of these suggestions have merit. Let's take them in turn.
Replace Joker Phillips with a name coach
Kentucky has tried to do this before. After Bill Curry got fired at Alabama and the UK job became available, UK hired Bill Curry who promptly tried to do more or less what Phillips has tried to do in reverse -- make an option quarterback out of a drop-back passer. Phillips is trying to make a drop-back passer out of a dual threat quarterback.
Could Kentucky get a name football coach? Maybe, but two major things stand in the way:
- Kentucky has one of the worst football programs in the SEC. In the past 30 years, Kentucky has been anything but successful on a consistent basis, and the recruiting base in the state is relatively week compared to the rest of the SEC. Any name coach coming in here would be expected to convert UK into a winning program with greater success than we had under Rich Brooks. Given the structural difficulties in recruiting at Kentucky, that would be a tough order to fill.
- There are any number of better programs than Kentucky for rebuilders to use as a vehicle, and everyone and their brother, including every football coach you can name, knows that Kentucky may give lip service to football, but what we are really about is basketball. When the time comes to choose, basketball wins every battle. That's a big reason why our last big name coach, Bear Bryant, left the program.
The bottom line here is that Kentucky has been historically unwilling to make the commitment a big-name coach would be looking for, and he knows he is going to lose out on funding to the basketball program. Throw in the poor recruiting base, and I can't think of a reason that a big-name coach would come here. Why ruin your reputation trying to rebuild a program that the school itself treats as second in line? Even if UK were willing to spend Saban dollars for Saban quality, that wouldn't be enough.
Replace the offense with some kind of option-style offense like the spread or the triple option
This has more merit than the first one, but the problem is that Joker Phillips is not a triple or spread option coach. You can't expect coaches to succeed trying to do something that they have historically never done. Phillips believes in his system, and he isn't going to change it. It has worked, more or less, at Kentucky, but it certainly isn't working this year.
Replace the offensive coordinator
Again, there is merit to this. There are some exciting OC's out there who may be willing to come in and coach at UK. But will a new OC with a system different than Phillips is coaching really be a good fit? Or if another pro-style coordinator comes in, will he really be able to do more than Randy Sanders has using a similar offensive philosophy?
Burn a bunch of freshman redshirts in hopes of finding a spark
I have no idea if this would work or not. Most of the true freshmen that have played in this system so far have struggled to a greater or lesser degree. The type of players Kentucky is able to successfully recruit rarely perform well as freshmen owing to a lack of maturity. Would throwing more youngsters into the mix really help? I'm inclined to say no.
A combination of the above
Replacing the head coach with an up and coming OC should be possible, and theoretically we would want to change to something more exciting in terms of offensive firepower. I would point out the last time we did that, we landed on probation (even though Mumme was a head coach at the time and not an OC). Exciting personalities with innovative offensive styles like Mike Leach and Hal Mumme often have their own baggage that can blow up in the program like a time bomb. Why do you think UK went out and got old, boring Rich Brooks to replace Mumme? Because he was a known commodity and unlikely to damage the program through mismanagement or misbehavior, and Kentucky simply doesn't expect that much from the football program.
That last sentence in the previous paragraph is going to sting many of the long time, dedicated football fans we have at UK, but the truth of the matter is that the football program is not going to get the attention you think it deserves. You can argue about it with me until you are blue in the face, but history is clear on this point and the people who really come up with the money to help out the athletic program are basketball people. You can't change that by an act of will, even though some of you will endlessly argue otherwise. We'll agree to disagree about that.
In the end, there is little to be done until after next season, when Phillips will be seriously evaluated and, if things continue without significant improvement, probably dismissed and replaced by somebody, but if you are expecting a name coach, I'd counsel dialing those expectations back. Phillips knows this, I know it, Barnhart knows it and the new UK president knows it. All the football fans not in emotional denial know it also. Phillips is a good man and a solid football coach, and unlike Billy Gillispie who gave UK all kinds of reasons other than lack of success to dismiss him, Phillips carries no such baggage and is a Kentucky alum, which, like it or not, matters.
Can this season be saved? Yes, but it's a very long shot. I have seen no improvement in the offense and the defense is beginning to lose cohesion, particularly on the defensive line and in the backfield. Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy cannot win games or score points by themselves, and they are increasingly finding themselves on an island. The team chemistry, such as it was, is clearly headed the wrong way, and noting that I have seen argues for a team turn around.
At this point, the best we can do is be good fans. There will be recriminations aplenty from now until the end of the season, but as basketball begins, fan anger will wane and cooler heads will prevail, although to what end, I have no idea.