Kentucky’s decision to replace Joker Phillips as head coach has officially opened the door on America’s annual speculation season. The race to find out who UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart will hire is on and it will likely provide a landslide of misinformation, Twitter and messageboard rumors and, sadly, some flat-out lies (for the sake of grabbing pageviews).
That’s what the media provides these days. Because that’s what fans want these days.
We can tell you that various outlets from The Lexington Herald-Leader to Kentucky’s Rivals site CatsIllustrated.com (paywall warning) to AthlonSports.com have already posted candidate lists and “hot boards” for fans to peruse. In addition, John Clay of The Herald-Leader has tossed out longshot Mike MacIntyre of San Jose State as a possibility. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports writes — as we did a few weeks ago — that Bobby Petrino won’t be among the candidates, but a number of assistant coaches in the college and pro ranks will be.
At MrSEC.com, we’ll simply pass along the three names that we’ve heard most often from folks in or close to the Kentucky program. Names of men that we believe Barnhart will have an interest in speaking to. Names of people who might also be interested in the Wildcats’ job.
Taking things in alphabetical order:
David Cutcliffe, Duke head coach
Cutcliffe worked under Johnny Majors and then Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee while Barnhart worked as a member of the UT athletic department. The 58-year-old coach has Duke bowl eligible at 6-4 in his fifth season at the school. It’s the first time the Blue Devils have been eligible for postseason play since the 1990s.
Prior to Kentucky, Cutcliffe compiled a 44-29 record in six-plus years at Ole Miss. He was fired in 2004 after his only losing season at the school. His recruiting was questioned by many UM boosters as was his ability/willingness to glad-hand the school’s biggest boosters.
Cutcliffe is a no-nonsense coach. He recently took some shots at Florida State’s strength coach Vic Viloria via Twitter over the FSU aide’s propensity to wave towels and jump around on the Seminoles’ sideline during games. “Court Jester!! Not on our staff!!” he tweeted. Asked for further comment he gave some insight into his own approach: “When you bring attention to yourself purposefully, it bothers me a little bit. There’s really no value in it.”
If Barnhart wants an old school coach who’ll run a clean shop and probably lay down a solid foundation a la Rich Brooks, Cutcliffe would be a great option.
He’s also a master with quarterbacks which might make him an excellent fit with UK’s so-called “next Tim Couch,” freshman quarterback Patrick Towles.
But would Cutcliffe — who’s reportedly making $1.5 million in Durham — jump from a basketball school in an easier conference to a basketball school in a tougher conference? If he has some sort of SEC itch that still needs scratching, maybe. We continue to hear his name brought up by UK insiders again and again, but we just don’t see why Cutcliffe would trade Duke for Kentucky.
Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech head coach
Dykes once served on Hal Mumme’s Wildcat staff. So did his offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Mumme’s offense-first ways certainly rubbed off on the pair. Louisiana Tech ranks #2 nationally in scoring offense (52.4 points per game), #12 in rushing offense (239 yards per game), #7 in passing offense (331 yards per game), and #3 in total offense (570 yards per contest).
In just his third year as a head coach, the 42-year-old Dykes has led Tech to an 8-1 record and a national ranking. He’s now had back-to-back winning campaigns in Ruston which is a better track record than his predecessor, current Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. The Bulldogs only loss this year came in a 59-57 shootout with Texas A&M… and we’ve all seen how well A&M has performed in the SEC.
The son of former Texas Tech head coach Spike Dykes, Dykes the Younger might feel that he can pass on any UK offer and wait for something better/easier down the road. The more success he has in Ruston, the more job offers he’ll get. Even though Dykes is an up-and-comer and has ties back to UK, the Cats’ losing tradition over the past century might scare him away.
That said, if Barnhart could land Dykes — in an age when the rules of the game are clearly slanted toward offenses — he might just be landing the SEC’s next Petrino, without all the Petrino baggage. And Petrino never tore up the recruiting trail. Dykes might be able to scheme his way to victories in a talent-poor state just as Petrino did at Arkansas.
Phillip Fulmer, former Tennessee head coach
The 62-year-old Fulmer will go into the College Football Hall of Fame in December with a career mark of 152-52. He also has a BCS championship ring to wear on his finger while recruiting. If Barnhart — who, again, worked with Fulmer at Tennessee — wants to lend his program instant credibility and stability, Fulmer would be the perfect choice.
Fulmer knows the SEC. He’s also motivated to win more career games (173) than legendary Tennessee coach Robert Neyland. Though he’s a UT man, there are few who doubt whether he’d like to prove a thing or two to the fans/media/administrators who turned their back on him in 2008.
The negatives for Fulmer’s candidacy are threefold, however. First, word has it that he’s quietly angling to “Bill Snyder” his way back into the UT job if/when Derek Dooley is ousted. Second, the Volunteer program slipped toward the end of Fulmer’s tenure. Tennessee didn’t win an SEC title in his last decade as coach and two losing seasons in his final four led to his dismissal. Third, Fulmer took over a Top 10 program from his predecessor Majors, and built it into a national titlist. But he’s never built a program from the ground up and that would definitely be the challenge at UK.
While we initially scoffed at the idea of Fulmer showing any real interest in the UK job — all coaches will play along with schools just to keep their names in the papers — we’ve since been told by people close to the ex-coach that he might really be interested in the gig if offered. The thought being: If I win, I’m a hero like Brooks and if I lose, well, it was Kentucky.
Sources have even mentioned a pair of potential assistants who could come in and add some recruiting pop alongside Fulmer: longtime defensive coordinators Kevin Steele and Ron Zook. If Fulmer were to be offered and then accept the job in Lexington, recruiting in Ohio and Pennsylvania would be as important as recruiting in Georgia and Florida. Zook — who left Urban Meyer a stacked roster at Florida — has plenty of Midwestern recruiting ties after serving as Illinois’ head coach.
The fact that potential assistants’ names are being kicked around shows — at least to the sources we’ve spoken to — that Fulmer might still have just enough fire burning to really make a move up I-75 from Knoxville to Lexington.