One of the great things about Steve Spurrier is that he isn't just a coach -- he's a quote machine disguised as a golfer wrapped up in a visor, and he has had more of an effect on Kentucky fans than any other coach in the SEC since Bear Bryant.
Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader has this article today that provided the impetus for me to write this, and it can be summed up nicely in the first two paragraphs:
For that segment of the Kentucky football fan base that worships at The Altar of The Big Name Coach, a pillar of their faith will be on the opposing sideline in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
What Steve Spurrier has done at South Carolina is one reason so many UK fans seem ready to overlook Bobby Petrino's elastic history with telling the truth if the Kentucky job opens after this season.
This is absolutely right. When South Carolina hired Steve Spurrier, they had just tried the very same thing with Lou Holtz -- hiring a big-name coach -- with limited success. After a winless first season, Holtz won big his next two years as the Gamecock's head man, then slid back into mediocrity where South Carolina had spent so much of their time even before joining the SEC in 1992.
Story makes it sound like Holtz and Spurrier turned the Gamecocks around, but judging by the records, I would say that most of that credit belongs to Spurrier. When Holtz stepped down after six seasons in Columbia, his resume included 3 winning seasons and 3 losing seasons, only slightly better than his two predecessors, Sparky Woods and Brad Scott.
When Spurrier was hired after retiring from Florida, the Gamecocks expected the same near-immediate results they got from the Holtz hire, and they got it with two winning seasons in a row. But South Carolina's aspirations were not just winning seasons, but competitiveness in the SEC East. Despite a strong start, that eluded the Gamecocks until 2010, when they broke through and won the SEC East, almost reprised that feat in 2011, and now look poised to compete for the SEC East title yet again.
Unlike Holtz, who had fans very dissatisfied by the time he stepped down after the 2004, Spurrier managed to keep the ship afloat when South Carolina was young or lacked talent, and continued to recruit well. Building South Carolina into a multi-season competitor for the SEC East took five years.
South Carolina is the model most Kentucky fans would like to emulate, and to be sure, it is an apt comparison in some ways. South Carolina is comparable to Kentucky in terms of athletics department revenue and undergraduate enrollment, so it's easy from a macro standpoint to say that what they accomplished should be possible at Kentucky.
Unfortunately, that's not the whole story.
First, as Story points out, the main thing that attracted Spurrier to the USC position is absent at Kentucky:
What made the South Carolina job attractive to a Spurrier-level coach is the main thing the Kentucky position lacks: a bountiful in-state recruiting base.
Kentucky simply doesn't have the kind of home-grown talent that South Carolina does, and it is much easier to recruit close to home than try to steal high-level prospects from another state. Patrick Towles is an example of just that situation, as was Aaron Boyd when he came to UK.
The other thing that hurts UK in this endeavor is something it has that South Carolina lacks -- a national championship program in another major revenue sport -- in this case, basketball. Note that USC has a national championship baseball program, but I doubt it pays for itself, let alone makes the kind of money its basketball program does. Basketball sucks the air out of Kentucky football, and although fans would no doubt sell out Commonwealth Stadium if the team were good, getting the facilities up to SEC par would require a financial investment that the University appears reluctant to make.
Not only that, but when it comes time to get to the feeding trough, Kentucky basketball is the big pig, and gets to eat first. Football has to wait its turn.
That isn't to suggest that a coach like Spurrier could not do at UK what he did at South Carolina, although it may turn out to be impossible in practice. In theory, it would simply take longer, which is why we hear all the cries for the hiring of the odious, ethics-challenged liar Bobby Petrino. Those are understandable given the obvious conclusions of Spurrier's success, if misguided in my view.
Story's conclusion is the same as mine:
Moral: There are not enough Big Name Coaches to go around even for schools with far more football tradition and resources than Kentucky.
This is so. Very often, the availability of such coaches and the job openings simply don't coincide. Many people were calling for the firing of Phillips in favor of Mike Leach, but the timing was just impossible for all kinds of reasons.
Of course, putting the headstone on Joker Phillips' grave as coach at UK is still somewhat premature -- there are surely enough games left that a face-saving run is at least theoretically possible, if not likely. Still, the challenge of finding a new head man at Kentucky seems likely to be in front of us after this season. It is also possible a big name will become available. Those that dream of perhaps Jim Tressel might want to remember he has a five-year show-cause order against him by the NCAA, a fact that will make him unemployable until at least 2016.
At this point, it's a waiting game for Kentucky fans. Seems like a place we've been before.