Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader has an article up today asking the question, "Whose coaching seat is hotter, UK's Phillips or UT's Dooley?" Here's the tale of the tape:
Both Dooley and Phillips enter their third seasons at their schools with records of 11-14 overall. Both are 4-12 in SEC games. Each has had two losing seasons with one bowl trip (which both lost). In terms of "good victories," Phillips leads. The UK coach has a road win over Louisville (2010), an upset over No. 10 South Carolina (2010) and ending the 26-game losing streak to Tennessee (2011). Dooley's best victories at UT are over Cincinnati (2011), Vanderbilt (2011) and UK (2010), all at home.
Story goes on to conclude that Phillips is indeed the one with the boiling-hot backside, which I find interesting considering that football is a much bigger deal at Tennessee than Kentucky. The Vols have a football pedigree that includes two Mythical National Championships, one in 1951 with Robert Neyland (for whom the Tennessee stadium is named) and one in 1998 with Phil Fulmer at the helm. Tennessee has finished the season ranked in the top ten by the AP 23 times since they started playing football there circa 1891.
By contrast, every Kentucky fan knows that UK has been good only a few times in its history in football. UK has finished in the top ten only twice in the AP poll, 1950 (7th) and 1977 (6th). Kentucky has only once had a legitimate sniff at a national championship when it beat then #1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl in 1951 under Bear Bryant. The AP kept Oklahoma at #1, but Sagarin gave the nod to Kentucky as the best team in college football.
Comparing the two, only a third-world soccer fan who had never heard of American football could be clueless about which team had the greater intensity for one of America's unique sports. But that isn't the only factor at work here. Dooley took over a program reeling from some NCAA issues, and Phillips had no such problems.
Further complicating the matter is that Phillips was Offensive Coordinator at Kentucky for five years (I'm counting 2009 when his official title was "Head Coach of the Offense"), and has been a coach at Kentucky in some form or fashion for some 18 years. Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt, and Kentucky is very familiar with Joe "Joker" Phillips as a coach.
None of this figures into Story's calculus, but it is a big reason why many would agree that Phillips' seat is hotter. My own calculus has them figured about the same, and both with roughly the same likelihood of being somewhere else next year. Tennessee gets better talent than Kentucky, although they are still way behind the top programs in the SEC at this point in Dooley's career. Kentucky fans are more likely to put up with bad seasons than Tennessee fans, which favors Phillips. But UK fans, up until last year, had five straight bowl appearances, and they were getting used to thinking of the Wildcats as a program on the rise. Last year changed that, and UK fans want that feeling back pretty badly.
Looking at their schedule, Tennessee's season could very well turn on their first game against the N.C. State Wolfpack, who are figured to be better than Tennessee this year, but if the Pack comes in and hands Dooley a first-game loss at the hands of the ACC, UT fans are likely to be displeased. The Vols do finish the season with four very winnable games: vs. the Troy Trojans, vs. Missouri, at Vanderbilt and vs. Kentucky. If UT can go 4-0 in that stretch, they need only beat Georgia St. in the second game and Akron on Sept. 22nd to be bowl eligible. A victory against N.C. State gives them 7-5, a record that the Vol faithful will probably consider satisfactory. 6-6 will probably be enough for Dooley to hang on one more year, but that depends a lot on who UT manages to beat in the SEC.
Kentucky is in a much tougher spot, schedule wise, with upsets probably required in at least three games for the Wildcats to be eligible for post-season play. Even Vanderbilt is figured to be better than UK this year, although Kentucky might actually be favored in that game since it is in Commonwealth Stadium. Other than that, it gets tough, and primary rival Louisville is projected to be better, and a loss in that game will inflame UK fan passions against the current staff.
Phillips, by my calculus, needs 5 wins to hang on, uncomfortably. 4 wins will put Phillips firmly in the "embattled" category and Mitch Barnhart will have to spend some significant political capital to keep him, of which Barnhart has plenty right now with basketball title #8 and the success of ladies basketball and baseball. Less than four probably means zero wins against BCS teams, and that will will put Barnhart in a tough spot.
One thing I will say, though, is that Barnhart has been in tough spots before, namely back in 2005 with Rich Brooks. Even I was calling for Rich Brooks' head after that season, and you all know how I am about giving coaches chances. I was one of those calling for another year of Billy Gillispie. Wrong on both counts.
Yes, I know that Brooks was coaching a team still hampered by probation, and that was a major factor. Phillips has no such mitigating circumstances. In fact, many will accuse him, with some justification, of taking over a program in good shape and running it into the ditch.
The lynchpin in this drama is Barnhart's relationship with Phillips. If they are close, as he was with Brooks, Barnhart will go to the mat for Phillips and take the heat if he thinks that Phillips can produce. But if Barnhart does not think that Kentucky's football future is going to be back on track next season, assuming this season goes as badly or worse than expected (depending on where your expectations are), look for a change.
So as hot seats go, both Dooley and Phillips are sitting on one, and I'd say they are both more or less the same temperature.