LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Walking off the field two weeks ago after Kentucky's near upset of Tennessee, Larry Ivy had confirmed what he suspected when he hired Guy Morriss as the Wildcats' head coach nine months earlier.
He had the right man for a tough job.
The Kentucky athletics director had notions of announcing Morriss would be back on that day --- one which saw the Cats come within a field goal of knocking off the fourth-ranked Vols --- but had maintained all year long that no decisions on the future of the coaching position would be made until a full evaluation of the season as a whole.
Speculation had swirled that a second consecutive 2-9 season and looming NCAA sanctions may harm Morriss' chances to stay in Lexington, but a favorable decision came Sunday from the UK Athletics Association. On Monday, the powers that be discussed the move.
"Obviously, no one wanted more wins than coach Morriss and his staff, but at the same time we looked at how competitive this football team was," Ivy said. "Starting with the LSU game on, we were about as competitive in the Southeastern Conference as anyone."
Ivy noted that the Cats played the two teams slated for this weekend's SEC championship game within seven points. Kentucky lost to Western Division champion LSU 29-25 on a touchdown pass with 13 seconds left on Oct. 13. It led the Eastern Division champs, Tennessee, 21-0 before falling 38-35 on Nov. 17 at Commonwealth Stadium. The Vols have since vaulted to No. 2 in the BCS standings and have the inside track to face Miami for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.
"I think that made it obvious to everyone that this team was competitive," Ivy said. "But there were other areas off the field. We looked at academics. We looked at how coach Morriss and our staff were working with the C.A.T.S. Center. They've done an outstanding job there. We looked at discipline, what was going on with our football team off the field as far as these young men being good citizens. We ran into a problem or two, but coach Morriss handled those exactly the way we wanted him to, although it meant having to dismiss a young man (safety Octavius Bond) from this football squad when the numbers were very, very short.
"We also looked at the relationship that this coaching staff has. It's a very close-knit coaching staff. There's no finger-pointing offensively-defensively. It's one staff. As a group they work very, very hard. They also work very hard at recruiting and getting ready for next season.... Those areas are things that we saw that this football program is moving forward, and led us to the decision that coach Morriss should continue."
University President Lee Todd said he was impressed with Morriss' businesslike approach to a difficult challenge.
"When I was in business, I used to have a sign that said 'When in doubt, work.' And I think when he took over this position, he had to have some doubts, but you didn't see them because he was working so hard, getting everybody else to work hard," Todd said.
"I'm excited about continuing as the head coach at the University of Kentucky," Morriss said. "...I'm excited about where this program is going. I feel like we've laid the foundation that we can build a quality program on. We need to elevate this program to the top of the SEC and the nation, and I think we're deep into laying a foundation to build such a program on.
"Our offensive and defensive philosophies are in place. The systems are in place. I think the kids are excited about the schemes that they're playing in. Our kids are going to class, our academics are improving, and our discipline and accountability of our student-athletes is on the rise. As I've said before, the one common thread in any championship football team, basketball team, track team --- I don't care what the sport is --- is you've got to have strong discipline, and I think our players are starting to understand what we require of them in those areas."
The decision to bring back Morriss was praised by two players on hand for Monday's press conference.
"This is great for us, great for the team," said sophomore quarterback Jared Lorenzen. "It's great for recruiting, and something we're really excited about. When he told us (Sunday) that he got it, we all applauded. We were all pulling for him."
"The wins column may not show it, but he's been successful," said senior linebacker Ronnie Riley. "We know it, and we're going to come back and prove it to everyone else with a big season next year."
"To a man, (the players) are solidly behind this staff," Ivy added.
Morriss, the former associate head coach and offensive line assistant under Hal Mumme, has completed one year of a unique deal that consists of five separate one-year contracts. There is no buyout clause, leading many to question whether he can effectively recruit during a time which will see UK lose several scholarships due to NCAA violations. The school's case was heard by the committee on infractions Nov. 16 in Indianapolis.
"You just have to tell (recruits) that we've got the backing from the administration first and foremost," Morriss said. "Any coach in America has to deal with the same problem. How do you tell a recruit you're going to be there from one year to the next? We see that every year, coaches get paid phenomenal amounts of money to go away. That doesn't stop a universtiy from making a coaching job if they feel a change is necessary. If he's doing his job, fine, if not, he's going to get fired.
"I don't worry about that at all."
"I don't think it shows any more confidence in a coach to put a buyout clause in than it does to give him a four-year contract (extension)," Ivy said. "He has four more years to get the job done, and we fully expect him to get the job done.
"I think we've made the commitment to Guy Morriss. He's going to be out football coach for four years. I don't know how many commitments Bob Davie (who was fired on Sunday with four years remaining on his contract) made with Notre Dame for this year. What's the difference? We're satisfied with the contract, he's satisfied with the contract, and hopefully everyone we're recruiting is not going to be looking at a contract, but the University of Kentucky, what this program has to offer, our fan support, our facilities and especially what this coaching staff has to offer. That's what kids are going to come play for -- the guys who recruit them."