By Les Johns
This is the fourth in a four-part series about the state of the UK football program.
Part 1: Financial deficiency capping UK football.
Part 2: Football rusty without ‘gold standard.’
Part 3: Less spending, lack of in-state talent hurts football recruiting.
Part 4 sidebar: UK to the ACC?
Alabama and LSU, which played for the college football national championship in 2011, have some of the best facilities in the SEC, recruit some of the top talent in the nation and boast the top two highest-paid coaching staffs in the conference.
A USA Today survey in 2011 showed that UK’s coaching staff was the lowest paid in the SEC.
Head coach Joker Phillips and his staff were paid $3.9 million total in 2011, according to the report.
The average SEC staff earned almost $6.2 million, 59 percent more than UK’s.
It might be hard finding anyone in Kentucky who would advocate a raise for Phillips, so paying him more is not the solution.
The next question would be if UK Athletics is willing to pay top dollar to bring in a high-level, big-name coach to run the program if there is a change in leadership. That’s all it will take to turn the program around, right?
In the immortal words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”
“People think that if we just had a great, big-name coach we could get things done here, but they have convenient short-term memories,” said Oscar Combs, founder of The Cats’ Pause and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
Before leading the Cats on the sidelines, Jerry Claiborne was head coach for the Maryland Terrapins of the Atlantic Coast Conference from 1972-81. Claiborne, a Sporting News National Coach of the Year Award winner in 1974, compiled a 77-37-3 record at Maryland, including a 46-11-1 record in the ACC. He led the Terrapins to seven bowl games during his 10-year tenure. There were 12 bowl games in 1976. There were 35 last year.
Claiborne returned to his alma mater in 1982 and led the Cats to a 0-10-1 first-year record. His eight years at the helm at UK produced a 41-46-3 record, with two bowl appearances. The 1984 team that went 9-3 is widely considered to be among the greatest teams in UK history and was the last team to defeat
Tennessee until last year. That was the only team during his tenure that boasted better than a 6-5 record.
Bill Curry took over for Claiborne in 1990. In 1989, Curry coached the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, after winning the SEC regular-season title and the SEC Coach of the Year award. Some could argue that is the modern-day equivalent of hiring Nick Saban or Les Miles.
“Everyone would say that Alabama was trying to run him (Curry) out of town, and while that may be true, they weren’t running him out because he wasn’t winning. His last game at Alabama, 24 hours before he came to Kentucky, he was playing for the national championship,” Combs said. “After he left Alabama, they did win the national championship (in 1992). My point is that at Georgia Tech and Alabama, he (Curry) recruited championship-level talent.”
In the past, the Cats have brought in the big-name coaching talent to lead, with mixed results. UK believes it is competitive in salaries now, but will adjust as needed, UK spokesman Tony Neely said.
“Football coaching salaries have exploded in recent years, especially in the Southeastern Conference. Football salaries at Kentucky have grown significantly in recent years as well,” Neely said. “When you look at the nation as a whole, and not just at the SEC, our football salaries are competitive. We’ll continue and are prepared to grow those salaries as needed.”
Mark Nagel, associate professor in the sport and entertainment management department at the University of South Carolina, said it will be difficult for any coach at UK to build the program in the competitive environment of the SEC.
“Losing to Western Kentucky should never happen, when you look at what resources Kentucky has versus what resources Western has,” Nagel said. “Being in Kentucky has its disadvantages, with lower population and not having 20-to-40 top football prospects every year. It is only natural for the alumni, students and stakeholders in the University of Kentucky to want to win, but it is just very difficult to deliver that in a competitive environment where you are looking up from a football standpoint.
“It’s a tough thing to be a coach at a place like Kentucky, because everybody there wants to win — but it may be a near impossibility, especially in the short-term.”
Combs said he has never seen the fans stay away from the games in the numbers they have this year.
“I would like to tell the fans to support the team. I understand where the fans are coming from by staying home,” Combs said. “I feel bad for Joker in that he basically had a year and a half before they turned on him, but that is today’s society. Fans are not going to give you five or six years like they used to. “
It will take much more than a coaching change to turn the program around, Combs said.
“You probably going to see a coaching change, unless something drastic changes,” Combs said. “Let’s just say for some magical reason a Rich Rodriquez or Mike Gundy comes in, if everything else stays the same, they are going to struggle.
“They may not lose to Western Kentucky, but they are going to struggle in every other game in the SEC.”