Ball’s in UK’s hands, who do they target?

Cody Porter | @KernelPorter
cporter@kykernel.com

Weeks of holdout came to an abrupt end Sunday when UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart made it known by letter that head coach Joker Phillips is no longer an employee of the university.

It wasn’t surprising news.  And considering the team’s current state, it shouldn’t even be alarming.

The chance for fans to be optimistic about the future is now, as the UK coaching carousel is about to take its spin.

Having seen the recent downturn in football interest, Barnhart now has the opportunity to continue his string of program turnarounds with a buzzworthy coaching hire — arguably the team’s first in nearly 20 years.

Before those of you get ahead of yourself, while the university has the funding to do so, a program-changer of the magnitude that was men’s basketball head coach John Calipari isn’t walking into the Wildcat Den for a press conference.

The football Cats are still what they are: A team with a history of strikeouts that is generally down on its luck, despite having a loyal following.

So that means no jaw-dropping hire of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Les Miles, or even the struggling Longhorns’ Mack Brown.

While that may seem ridiculous to mention, people in this state have tracked flights for non-occurring coaching hires (see Billy Donovan; every UK fan forum in existence).

Nevertheless, there are a handful of coaches who are either still molding their skills as coordinators or have just recently made the move to smaller-tier schools.

Bobby Petrino notwithstanding, due to his on- and off-the-field transgressions, the field of candidates for Barnhart is wide ranging.

A collection of coaches who I think should be pursued, are likely to be pursued and those who probably won’t, despite their prowess, can be found below.

Porter’s Prospective Candidates
Jim Tressel (Vice President of Strategic Engagement, Akron)
Age: 59
Playing style: Pro-style
Last position: Head Coach, Ohio State (2001-10)

Forced to resign amidst a scandal at Ohio State in May, Tressel is the big name of the group that the Cats need to zone in on. He would have to sit out his first five games and during first-year postseason play due to a five-year, show-cause sanction, but it would be worth it for UK to have a championship-caliber head coach. Not many others are likely to welcome him during the time he has these conditions, so if he were to leave down the road, the Cats would have him for enough time to benefit the foundering program.

Jim McElwain (Head Coach, Colorado State)
Age: 50
Playing style: Pro-style
Last position: Offensive Coordinator, Alabama (2008-11)

Though he may currently be 2-6 as a head coach, McElwain found success with the Crimson Tide from 2008-11. Circumstances are certainly different, as he opted to make the move to a low level BCS school. He does have the SEC experience, which could help the Cats quicker than some coaches, and a move from the Mountain West would be a vast improvement for him.

Gus Malzahn (Head Coach, Arkansas State)
Age: 47
Playing style: Spread no-huddle
Last position: Offensive Coordinator, Auburn (2009-11)

Possibly the hottest name from last off-season, Malzahn’s move to Arkansas State was surprising. But, he was able to lure some elite transfers, notably former Auburn running back Michael Dyer. He is also an offensive wiz, which stems from his high school coaching days. His SEC experience and notoriety would likely be enough to instantly match the level of talent coming in before slowly evolving through a couple of seasons.

Kliff Kingsbury (Offensive Coordinator, Texas A&M)
Age: 33
Playing style: Air Raid
Last position: Offensive Coordinator, Houston (2008-11)

Like several of the possible candidates, Kingsbury is a student of the spread offense. He is young, but after having had record success as a quarterback at Texas Tech and as a coordinator at Houston and A&M, what more would get the fan base excited? He plus freshman quarterback Patrick Towles could prove to be a force in college football if the rest of the offense works itself out. Just see freshman Johnny “Football” Manziel for the Aggies.

UK bloodline
Mike Leach (Head Coach, Washington State)
Age: 51
Playing style: Air Raid
Last position: Head Coach, Texas Tech (2000-09)

He was all you heard about last season from UK fans. Now that he is at a new school, the question is would he want to leave? I believe so, because after all, it’s the SEC and where Leach learned the offense that provided him so much success as a Red Raider. Like Tressel, the question for Barnhart and the university would be is he worth the possible baggage, but this is a team not in the situation to be judging too hard.

Sonny Dykes (Head Coach, Louisiana Tech)
Age: 42
Playing style: Spread
Last position: Offensive Coordinator, Arizona (2007-09)

Another Hal Mumme understudy, and another explosive offense fans would love. Dykes currently has his Louisiana Tech squad at 7-1 and in the nation’s top 25 with only a three-point loss to Texas A&M, where they put up points in bunches late in the game. He’s young in the head coaching game, but is a familiar face that has no drawbacks despite being a part of Mumme’s era.

Neal Brown (Offensive Coordinator, Texas Tech)
Age: 31
Playing style: Spread
Last position: Offensive Coordinator, Troy (2008-09)

Since 2010, led by Seth Doege, Neal Brown’s offense has flourished in Lubbock, Texas. In fact, it has been among tops in the FBS. Last season, the Red Raiders offensive firepower brought Brown’s name to the forefront when mentioning coaching candidates, like his mentor Mike Leach. Although Tommy Tuberville’s defense has been the talk this season, Brown should certainly continue to be a candidate given his success and ties.

The Lookers
Kirby Smart (Defensive Coordinator, Alabama)
Age: 36
Playing style: 3-4
Last position: Safeties, Miami Dolphins (2006)

Smart money isn’t on Kirby Smart to be UK’s next head coach. He is by far the hottest candidate listed, as his Crimson Tide defense is the best of any team, offense or defense, in the nation. Elite programs are likely to come calling at season’s end after another Alabama national title, but that shouldn’t stop Barnhart from sending Smart a blank check. Offer him as much as it takes to bring him to the Bluegrass, continuing his SEC ties.

Bryan Harsin (Offensive Coordinator, Texas)
Age: 35
Playing style: Pro-style
Last position: Offensive Coordinator, Boise State (2006-10)

Due to serving as co-offensive coordinator, the door could be open for Harsin to leave the Texas program. After having brought his exciting version of a pro-style offense to Austin, he has helped revive a Texas offense that had turned stagnant. Just as he had done at Boise State, Harsin mixed in power running and a slew of trick plays to many successful pass plays.

Mark Helfrich (Offensive Coordinator, Oregon)
Age: 39
Playing style: Spread option
Last position: Offensive Coordinator, Colorado (2006-08)

Since joining Oregon as offensive coordinator in 2009, Helfrich’s offense has been considerably the best in the country. During the ’09 season the Ducks ranked in the top 10 in scoring and rushing offense. In 2010 it was the best scoring and total offense the FBS had. Success has continued in 2012, as the Ducks, with a freshman quarterback, have continued scoring at high volumes. As of their game against Southern California, they had scored in two minutes or less on 34 occasions. With what UK currently has, it’s an offense more suited for freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow, but with Helfrich’s track record, bringing in talent would be less of a problem than any other aforementioned coach.

Jonathan Marcus says:

Bobby Petrino is Available. Yeah, he comes with a lot of baggage. But if Kentucky ever wants to get into the Top Ten in the Country in something besides basketball. We need to “Pony Up”!!!!