Musings on who might take Joker’s place at UK

By Brian Rickerd Published:

LEXINGTON – If the future of University of Kentucky football was in my hands alone, I would have no major reservations with keeping coach Joker Phillips around for at least one more season.

As I indicated a couple weeks back, the volume of injuries and young talent leads me to feel that way.

At the same time, I also believe the negativity around the 1-6 Wildcats is growing at such a rapid rate that Phillips and the UK administration may be pretty darned close to a point of no return.

That point may be passed as early as this Saturday when Kentucky hosts what promises to be a very angry bunch of Georgia Bulldogs (coming off an embarrassing 35-7 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 6, with a bye week to think about it) at 7 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium.

With that in mind, I, too, have wondered who might realistically take the head football coaching job at the University of Kentucky should the injury-riddld Wildcats fail to physically heal in time to save Phillips’ job.

Let me start by naming some guys that some UK fans might dream about, but would not take the job at UK. That list includes men like Nick Saban, Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, and Jon Gruden.

There’s no compelling reason, involving money or anything else, that would lead men like that to come to Lexington for the Kentucky job.

But there are several who might. And if I could pick any of them, these names would be my choice, in order:

Chris Petersen: The 48-year-old Petersen has done wonders for years as the head football coach at Boise State. His Bronco teams traditionally play the socks off much more athletic teams. Boise is having a relatively quiet 5-1 season this fall, but with all the losses to graduation suffered since last year, this may be Petersen’s best coaching job.

I love this guy.

But there are at least two reasons why I think UK could not or would not get Petersen. One is money. I believe it would take too much money, probably $4 million or so, to get Petersen, and I don’t believe Kentucky would offer that much.

The second is that Petersen appears to, by all accounts, love his life in Boise, where he is treated like UK fans treat John Calipari here.

Sonny Dykes: The 42-year-old Dykes has done a remarkable job in his second season as head coach at Louisiana Tech. The Techsters are 5-1 coming off a 59-57 loss to Texas A&M.

You can count on this from Dykes’ teams: They will score. Any time, any place, they will score. He is a master of offense. He proved that an offensive coordinator at both Texas Tech and Arizona, and he’s certainly proving it now.

Dykes’ age is also in the range I’d like to see at Kentucky.

I can’t think of any compelling reason why he would not take the UK job.

Mike Leach: the 51-year-old Leach is another offensive mastermind. Leach, in fact, was the head coach at Texas Tech while Dykes was offensive coordinator. Leach formerly coached at UK under Hal Mumme and has reportedly long expressed a fondness for Lexington, UK and the SEC.

A Leach hire would involve risks that others may not, however. He left Texas Tech nearly three years ago amidst some controversy involving alleged mistreatment of one of his players (something about locking an injured player in a closet during practice).

Leach was out of football for two years before being hired by Washington State this past spring. Leach’s Cougars are just 2-5 this season, though they were so bad when he took the job that I’m not alarmed by that record. The only bad loss was a 35-34 decision at home to lowly Colorado on Sept. 22.

David Cutcliffe: The 58-year-old Cutcliffe has much to offer. He coached Peyton Manning as an assistant coach at Tennessee and coached Eli Manning as head coach at Mississippi.

He’s done a very good job as the head football coach at Duke – a program arguably even more hopeless than Kentucky. The Blue Devils are 5-2 this season, and are starting to draw more fans to their games than just the immediate family members and curious bystanders that attended Duke games for years.

In short, Cutcliffe has a solid track record every step of his coaching career.

My concern about Cutcliffe is his age. I’d rather have a younger guy. On the other hand, Cutcliffe may make Kentucky his last job and stay longer than a younger man would.

Neal Brown: The obvious concern about Brown, the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, is his age: He’s only 32-years-old. And he has no head coaching experience.

But Brown has been an assistant coach for years, and everywhere he’s been, his teams have rolled up off the charts offensive numbers. Tech’s Red Raiders are 5-1 in 2012, averaging 40.7 points and 537 yards of total offense each time out.

Plus, Brown is from Boyle County and played three years of college football at Kentucky under Hal Mumme.

Ideally, I’d like to see Brown be an offensive coordinator at UK under one of the five men mentioned above (including Joker Phillips).

Mike Bellotti: The obvious drawback to Bellotti is his age – 61-years-old. But Bellotti did an amazing job for 14 years as the head coach at Oregon, where he was 116-55 and took the Ducks to 12 bowls along the way, before leaving the school in 2008 to be a television analyst.

Ironically, Bellotti was hired as offensive coordinator at Oregon in 1989 by then head coach and future UK coach, Rich Brooks.

A Bellotti hire here would also, hopefully, lure Phil Knight money to Kentucky football, though that may well be just wishful thinking.

Willie Taggart: The 36-year-old Western Kentucky University coach seems to have it going on in what looks to be a fast move up the coaching ladder. Taggart has taken a WKU program that was downtrodden when he arrived three years ago and led the Hilltoppers to records of 2-10, 7-5 and now 5-1.

This year’s slate includes a 32-31 win at Kentucky on Sept. 15.

The others: Some have mentioned former Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer as a possible candidate, though I find Fulmer tough to take for a slew of reasons. Fulmer is 62 and looked to be five or six years past his coaching prime when he left Tennessee in 2008. He is now a football television analyst.

And there are probably several assistant coaches at traditional powers like Alabama, and, more recently, Oregon, that Kentucky might do well to look at.

I’m sure more names will surface if Kentucky’s fortunes continue to slide.

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