After three disappointing seasons, Kentucky will part ways with Joker Phillips this season. Kentucky is 1-9 this season and 0-7 in the SEC. For his career, he is 10-23 vs. FBS and 4-19 in the conference. His fate was settled before losing 40-0 to Vanderbilt, though we can presume that hastened the announcement. The debate now moves on to who Kentucky should hire to replace him.
How Good is the Kentucky Job? Historically, Kentucky is a basketball school in the midst of football powerhouses. The Wildcats have more nine-loss seasons (7) than nine-win seasons (3) since Bear Bryant left in 1953. The recent apex was going to four-straight bowl games under Rich Brooks. The Wildcats may have the worst in-state recruiting base in the SEC. The structure is not elite, though we tend to overvalue the structure and underrate the value of the men inheriting it.
Alabama might be considered among the best jobs in the country in 2012. It was not when Rich Rodriguez turned it down in 2006. Is Kentucky that much worse off than, say, Stanford before Jim Harbaugh got there or South Carolina before Steve Spurrier? Perceptions change dramatically. Kentucky still draws SEC television revenue. It’s conceivable the right, charismatic coach could recruit the Southeast and Southern Ohio and build a team.
Who will Kentucky hire? Initial reports have them interested in Rex Ryan and a bunch of offensive coordinators, suggesting they are desperate to create some buzz. That desire will be tempered by realistic limitations. This is Kentucky at a nadir. It is an uphill job. They will be limited to candidates looking to jump to a head coaching job, looking to jump to a BCS job or looking to return to college coaching. Petrino is off the table. Here are some plausible candidates.
Willie Taggart [W. Kentucky] The second-best team in Kentucky plays in the Sun Belt. The Hilltoppers have tailed off a bit, but from Oct. 2011 to Oct. 2012 their only losses were at Alabama and at LSU. Taggart beat Kentucky this season. He’s making waves within the state. He’s a Harbaugh disciple.
Sonny Dykes [La. Tech] Louisiana Tech is set for an 11-win season, with the one-loss being a 59-57 one against a very good Texas A&M team. Dykes should be moving to a bigger job this winter. He has two spells at Kentucky on his resume under Hal Mumme in the 1990s. Kentucky might appeal. The question may be whether he has better options.
Kliff Kingsbury [Texas A&M – OC] Kingsbury will be a sexy name, if not this winter then the next few. He coordinated the No. 2 ranked offense last year at Houston. THis year, Texas A&M is ranked 7th nationally in yards per play with Johnny Manziel. Kingsbury is just 33-years-old. It’s not clear he can run a program, build a program or run an offense without an elite quarterback. It’s a high risk move, but Kentucky does not have much to lose. Are they ready for V-neck shirts?
Phillip Fulmer [Retirement] Fulmer never wanted to leave Tennessee in 2008. He has expressed interest in returning to coaching. Fulmer knows the SEC. He would accept the job. He was head coach when Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart was an associate AD at Tennessee. It’s the same sort of hire Barnhart made when he signed Rich Brooks in 2003.
Dirk Koetter [Atlanta Falcons – OC] Forde has Koetter on the school’s list. He has been in the NFL since 2007 with the Jags and Falcons, but had decent head coaching stints at Boise State and Arizona State. It’s reasonable, though it has the feel of a high-floor, moderate to low ceiling type hire.
Gus Malzahn [Arkansas State] He’s having a strong first-season with the Red Wolves. They are 6-3 with pay check losses at Oregon and at Nebraska. He might have scoffed at this job two years ago. If he’s not in play for Auburn, Arkansas or Tennessee, can he afford to turn down an SEC place?
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