Coaching Search: Pros & Cons

In this KentuckyScout feature, we examine the pros and cons of a few rumored candidates for the open UK football job.

Since the moment Mitch Barnhart delivered his "Open Letter to the Big Blue Nation" announcing his intention to change the direction of the football program, you've heard almost a dozen names bantered about as possible candidates for the Kentucky coaching job.

Some of them are complete Fantasyland. Others may have a scent of validity.

Barnhart hasn't commented publicly on the search since he dismissed Joker Phillips, so most of the talk you hear right now is pure speculation. We don't know exactly what the UK athletics director is looking for in a new coach, but we have gotten a decent feel for what he values during his 11 years in Lexington. We've also seen terrific "hits" in hires like Rich Brooks, Matthew Mitchell, Gary Henderson and John Calipari offset by tough lessons learned in rushing to hire Billy Clyde Gillispie and going the "head coach in waiting" route for football.

With all of that as a backdrop, here's one scribe's look at some of the pros and cons regarding a select few of the names we're hearing so far:

TOMMY TUBERVILLE:
Current Position: Head Coach, Texas Tech.

Pros: Tuberville possesses a rock-solid resume and widespread respect across the country. He was a graduate assistant and defensive assistant coach at Miami (Fla.) from 1986-93, a period that saw the Hurricanes win three national championships. He was defensive coordinator at Texas A&M in 1994, helping guide the Aggies to a 10-0-1 season. The Arkansas native parlayed that success into his first head coaching position at Ole Miss, leading the Rebels to bowl games in 1997 and 1998 before being offered the top job at Auburn. The Tigers won an SEC championship and went to five New Year's Day bowls during his 10 years on the plains. He currently has Texas Tech at 6-3 in his third year with the Red Raiders, who are averaging 38 points per game (17th nationally) and 499 yards of total offense (12th nationally) with former Wildcat and Danville native Neal Brown serving as offensive coordinator. Some have also suggested Brown as a candidate, but at 32, it's hard to envision Barnhart turning the program over to him at this point. A case could be made, though, that Brown could eventually succeed Tuberville.

Tuberville's overall record as a head coach is an impressive 129-75. Even more impressive: he's beaten Nick Saban four times, more than any other coach at the college level. At 58, he is neither too "green" nor a fossil. He is known as an outstanding recruiter, which is perhaps the No. 1 criteria for a new UK coach, and has produced many top assistants, including Bobby Petrino, Gene Chizik and Will Muschamp. He would not likely break the bank to hire, either. His current salary is reported to be $2 million.

Cons: It's not a huge name that would likely generate a great deal of initial excitement across the Big Blue Nation. And make no mistake, this program needs a major shot of adrenaline. In many ways, I sense a Tuberville hiring would draw a somewhat similar reaction to Rich Brooks arriving in 2003, although he would have the advantage of not coming out of semi-retirement. It might take some time for fans to warm to the idea, but if that's the biggest "con" regarding Tuberville, he might just be the ideal candidate.

BOBBY PETRINO:
Current Position: Unemployed

Pros: Petrino is arguably the best offensive mind in the college game. His sophisticated passing scheme utilizes every skill position on the field and makes it nearly impossible to defend. His style of play draws recruits, and he's already got experience recruiting in the Bluegrass State from his time spent at Louisville. A long-awaited breakthrough at Trinity High School, where UK has not signed a scholarship position player since Bell Biv Devoe were crafting hit songs, could occur with Petrino at the UK helm. Ultimately, someone is going to give him a chance to coach again, perhaps another SEC school, and he's probably going to do well.

Cons:Where do you begin? There's a trail of controversy following nearly every stop in Petrino's career. There were the clandestine meetings with Auburn during his time at Louisville. There was bolting for the Atlanta Falcons almost immediately after singing a 10-year contract extension with the Cardinals. There was quitting on the Falcons in the middle of a season and being seen on the news doing "Woo Pig Sooey" calls in Fayetteville before his old team even knew what was happening. There was the affair at Arkansas that cost him his job. Knowing Mitch Barnhart, about any of these would be reason to completely ignore Petrino as an option.

We haven't even mentioned some of the shady stuff that went on during the Brooks era, like calling a timeout with :06 remaining to punch in an extra score against a probation-battered UK squad in 2003. Brooks never forgot the classless move, and Barnhart hasn't either. Or ask former Rockcastle County coach Tom Larkey (now at Harlan County High School) about Petrino pulling a scholarship from his star lineman, Brad Durham, because Louisville suddenly found itself a BCS contender and in a position to recruit more high-profile players. Petrino failed to deliver the news himself, instead dispatching a blushing assistant coach to deliver the news. Larkey subsequently banned Louisville from ever coming to his school again to recruit. All of these examples combined, for an AD who values character and integrity, makes it a Paulie Walnuts situation – "Fuggedaboutit."

SONNY DYKES:
Current Position: Head Coach, Louisiana Tech

Pros: Dykes currently guides the No. 2 scoring offense in the NCAA at 52.4 points per game. The Bulldogs average an obscene 571 yards of total offense, led by a passing offense that Dykes learned as a graduate assistant under Hal Mumme at UK in 1997 and further as the Wildcats' wide receiver coach in 1999 before moving on to continue his studies under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. He has the fast-break-on-turf offense that many UK fans still covet from the "Air Raid" days and would likely jump at the opportunity to make the move from the WAC to the SEC. Having coached at UK and LaTech, he has developed some good recruiting ties in this part of the country. He could also tap into talent-rich Texas to improve the Wildcats' roster. He'll turn 43 on Nov. 9 and is an ideal age to bring some energy and excitement back into the program.

Cons: A stigma remains for many coaches who were at UK during the Mumme era, which wound up landing the program on probation at the start of the new millennium. When he was hired as the new AD, Barnhart gave his vow that the program would never end up in NCAA trouble again under his watch. One has to wonder if he would consider hiring anyone with ties to that staff, even if they had nothing to do with the shenanigans for which Claude Bassett was charged.

There's also the concern of going back to a style of football that is "all in" on offense and gives little attention to the type of defense required in the rugged SEC. Louisiana Tech is currently ranked No. 116 out of 120 Division I teams in total defense at almost 500 yards surrendered per game. If Barnhart were to be lured by the potential of Dykes' exciting offense, it should come with the non-negotiable requirement that an experienced, SEC-caliber defensive coordinator be prepared to join the staff.

KIRBY SMART:
Current Position: Defensive Coordinator, Alabama.

Pros: Nobody has it going on in college football right now like the Crimson Tide, and defense is at the center of their domination. While Nick Saban is the mastermind behind the Bama defense (No. 1 nationally in scoring defense at 9.11 points per game and No. 2 nationally at 227 yards per game) Smart has long been acknowledged as one of the brightest young minds in the game. Saban has scooped him up in stops at LSU and the Miami Dolphins prior to taking the Alabama job. Smart won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach in 2009 and is widely recognized as one of the South's top recruiters. The 36-year-old was an All-SEC defensive back at Georgia, where he had 13 career interceptions. Hiring Smart would send a signal that UK is finally getting serious about playing "big boy football" and stopping people in the SEC.

Cons: While everyone agrees that Smart is on the verge of landing his first head coaching position, many scoff at the notion that the Wildcats would be his best opportunity. Let's face it, there might be three other more attractive positions (Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee) open in the SEC alone by the end of the season. Smart will almost certainly be a top candidate for any of those jobs, plus others across the country. Would Kentucky be able to put the type of package together to lure him to the Bluegrass? It might take in the neighborhood of $3-4 million. Do you give that to a 36-year-old seeking his first head coaching position? This could be a good test to see how serious Barnhart is about that statement he made in the "Open Letter" regarding competing for SEC championships.

TODD GRANTHAM:
Current Position: Defensive Coordinator, Georgia

Pros: You won't find many younger assistants like Grantham (46) with a better resume. He's spent time with Georgia, Michigan State and Virginia Tech at the college level and with the Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys in the NFL. Upon landing the Georgia job in 2010, Grantham implemented a 3-4 look and helped the Bulldogs rank 23rd nationally in total defense while increasing takeaways by 14 from the previous year. That national total defense ranking improved to third in 2011, while finishing second in the SEC in sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers forced. His Bulldog defense is currently 25th nationally in points allowed per game (20.89) and has Georgia in a position to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game this year. His experience and reputation in the Peach State could be a big plus for the Wildcats, who depend on the area as a major source of talent.

Cons: Grantham, a native of Pulaski, Va., does not have the "sizzle" name that some UK fans desire. Most of the BBN can tell you who Kirby Smart is, but Grantham is a different matter. Two weeks ago, I could not pick him out of police lineup if it meant saving my life. There is also the matter of Kentucky's game against Georgia earlier this season. Although the Bulldogs won 29-24, the Cats had one of their best offensive performances of the season and rushed for 206 net yards. UGA looked extremely conventional and never adapted to what UK was doing. Was than an aberration or a red flag? The body of work suggests the former, but if it comes down to announcing Grantham as the new boss, many fans will immediately think about that game and have reservations.

DIRK KOETTER
Current Position: Offensive Coordinator, Atlanta Falcons

Pros: Koetter's name has been popping up all over the place since news of UK vacancy broke. The former Boise State and Arizona State coach has always featured an explosive offense, something the Cats are hoping to rekindle in Lexington after two miserable years on that side of the ball. The 53-year-old Koetter has helped develop Matt Ryan into one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, and the Falcons have an league-best 8-0 record on the strength of his vertical passing attack. But unlike some of the other pass-happy candidates on this list, he's had a good track record of keeping a balanced approach with running backs like Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville and Michael Turner in Atlanta.

Cons: The Falcons may be headed for a run at the Super Bowl, making it unlikely that Koetter would leave in a timely fashion to suit UK's needs. Although he has an overall college record of 66-44, Koetter did not face many SEC-caliber teams during his time at Boise State, and his 2-19 record against ranked teams while at Arizona State is not going to instill confidence in the fan base that he's the man to help the Cats contend in the SEC. He also brings very few recruiting ties to the table in this part of the country.

"PHIL ZOOKER"
Current Position: As Dwight Schrute of Dunder Mifflin fame would put it, Phil Zooker is "unavailable, fictional and overqualified."

Pros: One of the most intriguing suggestions making the rounds is to lure former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer out of retirement and possibly pair him with former Florida/Illinois head man Ron Zook as defensive coordinator and recruiting specialist. I have no idea how that one got started, but in theory, it's a good combination. Fulmer may be itching to get back on the sideline, and Zook would be an ideal wingman if he were open to the idea of coming back as a coordinator. Zook and his wife have always liked the Bluegrass State and used to vacation annually on Lake Cumberland. Fulmer beat Kentucky 17 consecutive times during his tenure at UT, so he knows a thing or two about what the Cats need to do in order to compete in the SEC.

Cons: Fans aren't going to rally behind the idea of seeing ol' Phil in blue and white. They had much delight in poking fun of his physique in that hideous shade of orange over the years, even though he always got the last laugh as "Rocky Top" blared for the 99th time every meeting with the Cats. He'll be viewed, perhaps unfairly, as too old (62) and, perhaps accurately, as a guy who lost his mojo the last few years with the Volunteers. Tennessee also had a number of run-ins with disciplinary problems and encounters with Knoxville law enforcement prior to Fulmer being dismissed in 2008.

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