Just changing head coach may not be the answer

Head coach Joker Phillips during the University of Kentucky spring football scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium on April 21, 2012. Photo by Mike Weaver | Staff

By Les Johns
ljohns@kykernel.com

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.”

George P Burdell says:

Oh, and Curry managed one bowl at Georgia Tech, his next to last year. That was behind the running of Robert Lavette. He did not take the team to “bowl games”.

He was 5-5-1 the year Alabama hired him. They did not hire him because he was a great coach. They hired him to clean up their image. Those responsible for hiring him lost their jobs.

jauk11, you should do a little homework before posting things that are easily checked and shown to be false.

George P. Burdell says:

No, Curry’s record at Georgia Tech did not improve every year. He dropped from 6-5 in his third year to 3-8 in his fourth (his first full recruiting class) and from 9-2-1 in his sixth year to 5-5-1 in his seventh (and last).

If you are going to blame Pepper Rodgers for his one-win seasons (which I don’t think anyone who saw those games would), then you’ve got to blame Curry for Bobby Ross’s first two seasons (2-9 and 3-8). Fair is fair.

Tech won the national championship four years after Curry left, not three. All Curry’s players were gone.. Curry had nothing to do with it. It was Bobby Ross, George O’Leary, Ralph Friedgen, Bill O’Brien, and the players. THAT was a coaching staff

By the way, O’Leary could probably be hired away from UCF, and Friedgen is available. UK could do a lot worse than the former as HC and the latter as OC.

UKFAN197TONE says:

Let’s not get all caught up in the salaries of the BB coach. The majority of his money comes from endorsements…not the University.

Frustrated Kat says:

As an alumnus and season ticket holder I am getting very tired of making the drive to Lexington from Atlanta just to watch us get embarassed on the field and watch my BP go up! The administration has to decide if they can afford to lose the income the FB program brings in. If not for that income, kiss Calipari and his salary and staff goodbye at the end of his current contract. Barnhart and other officials must realize that they are going to have to invest heavily in the facilities and coaching staff to right this slowly sinking ship. I think the students, alumni and fans have spoken loudly by their lack of attendance and I don’t see that turning around until changes are made.

UK, stop making excuses and get the job done right. Your alumni, students and the commonwealth deserve nothing less!

desertCard says:

I can never understand why UK can’t put a decent team on the field. I’m a UK grad but lifelong Cards fan just so you know. When I was there we went to games to watch star players run roughshod over our teams. Only consolation there was to an otherwise miserable season.

1-UK plays in arguably the best football conference.
2-Natl TV exposure
3-Rabid fanbase
4-And the best looking girls in the state seem to migrate to UK. (Now a Bama fan friend of mine said that wasn’t a plus being it’s KY but I smacked him upside the head and he shut up)

So tell me why can’t UK put up a good fight for more than 1 yr in a row? And then it’s still a Nashville/Atlanta based bowl game at best.

I hated Cliff Hagan when I was there as he treated other sports (i played soccer) like we were flies in the house. Barnhart doesn’t seem to have a clue unless the ball is round and even then he ran Tubby out and hired Gillispie if I’m not mistaken.

Unfortunately Joker is no where near the coach Strong is and I think that’s what everyone expected.

Just wondering.

s.smith says:

If you want a winning football team bring back Fran Curci and be ready to dish out more money for the coaching staff equal to that of the basketball team, anything else is folly.

Tom says:

Explain South Carolina’s success. They decided to go ‘big boy’ and hired Lou Holtz and then Steve Spurrier. Think the big name coach might have contributed to their success?
So Joker and STAFF make less then Calipari alone? There’s the problem. If we are going to hang our hat on being a ‘Basketball’ school then shut down all the other programs except men’s and women’s basketball and we won’t need these discussions.
AND going to another conference. Yea, that sounds like a Barnhart solution. Can’t win in the SEC, leave, and find and find our niche. But let’s stay mediocre or in this case less than in the sport. That way we don’t have to spend money on football that FOOTBALL earns.
Let’s all whimper about ‘we just can’t compete’ instead of trying to.

KaptainRon says:

Times have changed with the SEC dominating football to the huge TV contracts.

Facilities, coach, exposure are all key componets to getting recruits now (it’s not just regional anymore like when Curry or Claibourne were coaching) it’s national exposure in the best football conference in America!! Use the combination of faclities, Coach and playing on TV in the SEC and recruiting will steadily get better.

Just need UKAA to get on board; cause the old saying it takes money to make money still holds true.

catcard202 says:

A BIG NAME Coach is not the only piece needed to solve UK’s FB problems. Admin support is MUCH MORE IMPORTANT at this juncture.

If you build it, great coaches/players will come.

If UK invested in putting up GOLD STANDARD facilities for the FB program, like they’ve done for the MBB program…UK would be a destination job/school.

And at a time when the economy is sluggish & money is cheap…No one seems forward things enough to realize that now is the perfect time to shoot for the moon & take on a over-the-moon project for FB.

Billy says:

The real change needs to start with the AD then go from there. As for the fans turning on Joker in such a short time as head coach its not just what he has done as head coach. I spent the last 5 years watching a great defense support a struggling offense. Every year we struggled on a consistent quarterback even to the point of moving our best running back into that position. Don’t get me wrong Hartline did have some great moments but he had a LOT of bad moments. Under Jokers reign our offense was just not that great. You could play a good drinking game if you took a shot everytime someone would say, “What is Joker thinking?” Lets be honest its nothing against Joker who I am sure is a great person. We just need someone that can truly turn our football program around. If UK will not take notice more people will continue to cancel season tickets maybe that will get their attention!!

todd says:

well, Leach is 2-1 and has improved, lost to BYU on the road(who should have beaten Boise State last night). Leach will be fine it was his first game. Please dont compare Leach and Joker, its silly

jauk11 says:

Bill Curry was terrible at UK but it was probably as much UK as him, they severely limited his choice of staff and gave him the same ole same ole support they always do—dismal. His record the first two years at GT SHOULD just tell you how bad a team he inherited, how is Leach doing at WSU so far, AND he inherited a top offense. You do NOT get to be the coach at Bama by being a terrible coach anywhere, Curry’s teams at GT improved every year, going to bowl games, AND, which Oscar failed to mention, like Bama, ALSO won a NC three years after he left. Coincidence, I think not. Bama fans didn’t want him because Auburn had very good teams while he was there and beat him three years, a BIG NO NO in that state, his last year that was his ONLY regular season loss.

Very good to great recruiter in Georgia and Bama, poor here, I suspect I see a pattern, one that reflects the support our basketball school gives football in a state where the football coach desperately needs MORE support from the school, and instead receives the bare minimum. The only significant improvement under mitch has been the scoreboards, and they were redone TWO years after they were scheduled to be replaced and mitch delayed them to the absolute max.

I think Joker deserved a lot better, and I think he has greatly improved our recruiting IN SPITE OF mitch. Football is football, and the better team doesn’t always win, a fact UK football fans should consider a real blessing when we play in the SEC.

George P. Burdell says:

Bill Curry was a terrible coach at Georgia Tech. He won one game each of his first two years. He took the team to one bowl game.

Thank goodness Alabama hired him away. Bobby Ross reminded us that the Jackets could win.

Richard says:

This is where you lost me , Billy Curry was run out of Alabama , Big time coach may not be answer , small time coach is not either. UK has the highest paid woman’s basketball coach lowest paid football coach , UK football is at the bottom of everything , including the worst coach, lowest recuriting budget , AD who likes secondary sports better than football, it is almost hopeless, hire Mike Leach, do something I not going to spend 2-3 grand every year for this disgrace.UK president and AD should be ashamed but I doubt they care