NCF Nation: Rich Brooks

Mark Helfrich has a few more months before he can officially coach a game as Oregon's new man in charge. And yet he's already received an encouraging endorsement from the guy who would love nothing more than to squash the Ducks' on Nov. 7, crushing their chances of a North Division crown and possible berth in the BCS championship game.

Stanford head coach David Shaw knows a little something about taking over for a strong-willed coach who left for the NFL. Shaw's calm and even-tempered demeanor was a stark juxtaposition to the animated, and at times hot-headed and eccentric Jim Harbaugh. And yet in two years, Shaw has earned a pair of Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards and found a way to make Harbaugh's team, almost seamlessly, his own.

[+] EnlargeOregon's Mark Helfrich
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports"This is a place where succession and continuity has been very successful," new Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said, "and hopefully, obviously, we hope for that to continue for a long time. "
Helfrich, Shaw says, is on the same path.

"I think he's done it perfectly so far," Shaw said. "The first thing you don't want to do is spend so much time putting your stamp on it that you don't do what's best for the kids. The most important thing is that you put the kids in position to be successful. It's got to be about the team. And your team feeds off of that.

"It's a great opportunity for Mark to step out in front and poke his chest out and talk about how great he is and all the things he's going to do and change. He hasn't done that," Shaw continued. "He's said 'Hey, we're going to play our offense. This is Oregon's offense. We're going to play as best as we can. We're going to improve every single day.' All the moves he's made, all the decisions he's made, all the words he said have all been exactly what should be done. That reassures your team. Really, that's how the team becomes your team because they believe in the coach and they believe he's going to do what's best for them."

Pretty classy answer. He could have just as easily said, "We try not worry about anyone but ourselves," a quote Shaw is fond of during the season, and that would have been perfectly acceptable.

From what we know about Helfrich, which is limited until we see what he does on fourth-and-3 from the 50, we do know that he has a different personality than Chip Kelly -- who departed for the Philadelphia Eagles after taking the Ducks to four straight BCS bowl games. Kelly was a confident coach. Fearless. Brash, even. No one is certain if Helfrich will share Kelly's aggressive nature or take on a more conservative approach. Not even Helfrich.

"I don't know," Helfrich said. "I guess we'll find out."

Oregon's new coach isn't worried about the comparisons to his predecessor -- which will no doubt be flying in the preseason, during the season and after the season. He simply sees himself as the next in line.

"[From coach Rich] Brooks, to [Mike] Bellotti, Chip, they all gave me the advice to be yourself," he said "This is a place where succession and continuity has been very successful and hopefully, obviously, we hope for that to continue for a long time. We have a lot of great things in place here from an infrastructure standpoint. Not only the facilities, which are obviously incredible, but the people inside the facilities are even more important. When your strength coach has been here for almost a quarter of a century and almost every person that touches our guys' lives have been here for more than a decade. That's continuity of culture."

Then again, he's also following a coach who won 91 percent of his conference games. The expectations for Helfrich and the program are atmospheric. But he's off to a good start. So says the guy who wants to beat him.
1. About the College Football Playoff: I like the name. The Super Bowl isn’t going to morph into the Pro Football Playoff anytime soon, and Mercedes-Benz isn’t going to rename its S600 the Luxury Sedan. But the College Football Playoff has clean lines. It is Zen. And after the complicated, godforsaken, unloved BCS, the College Football Playoff is exactly what the sport needs. At long last, no one has to explain anything. On the other hand, the BCS sure drummed up attention. Can the Playoff match it?

2. Former Oregon head coaches Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti visited the Ducks’ practice Monday morning at the invitation of new head coach Mark Helfrich. Afterward, Brooks couldn’t get over what he saw from third-year sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota. “He’s so accurate,” Brooks said. “That’s unusual for a young player. I was amazed at his accuracy last year.” Mariota completed 230-of-336 passes (.684) in his first season and led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency. Wait until Oregon opens up the playbook for him.

3. Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, in describing how his young players learned their jobs this spring, gave a perspective on his head coach that only a son can provide. “It’s kind of like I remember watching Steven learning how to swim,” Brian said of his younger brother, now a Hawkeyes lineman. “My dad (Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz) picked him up and threw him in the water and he learned how to swim.” Not to worry: Steve wore floaties. But that’s not the point. “You throw them in,” Brian said, “they splash around the water a little bit, and they figure out it’s not that bad. They are floating. They will live.”

Thoughts on Mark Helfrich's promotion

January, 21, 2013
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Just about everyone inside the Oregon program has faith in Mark Helfrich, believes he can keep the Ducks among the nation's elite after he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach, replacing Chip Kelly.

After all, that's what Oregon did when Rich Brooks, the grandfather of the Ducks' national relevance, handed off to Mike Bellotti and when Bellotti handed off to Kelly. Helfrich is the third consecutive sitting offensive coordinator to be promoted, and the formula has yet to let the school down.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsA major key to Mark Helfrich being promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach at Oregon -- system continuity.
For about a year, Helfrich was widely known as the heir-apparent to Kelly, and it was widely thought he'd ascend sooner rather than later after Kelly's flirtation with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year.

The profiles have mostly been written -- he's an Oregon guy through and through, a state native and a son of a former Duck. He's a lighter touch than Kelly. He's smart. His specialty is quarterbacks. He'll provide system continuity. And he'll retain most of the staff, one that is considered among the nation's best.

But now belief yields to actual day-to-day business results. Speculation will be replaced by performance: The signing of a recruiting class on Feb. 6. Spring practices. His first disciplinary issues. Deciding who calls plays.

Games.

The good news is he doesn't face the difficult career opener Kelly did, that regrettable evening at Boise State. Recall that shortly after that humiliating defeat and LeGarrette Blount meltdown, there was a sense of panic among some fans that Kelly was in over his head. Fair to say he wasn't.

Helfrich gets Nicholls State, then a Nevada team breaking in a new coach and a Tennessee squad doing the same. His Pac-12 opener and road debut is at Colorado. So the odds are high that he and the Ducks will be 4-0 and ranked in the top 5 -- top 3? -- when they head to Seattle to play their good friends, the Washington Huskies, in renovated Husky Stadium on Oct. 12.

Now, I don't want to blow you guys away with my local knowledge, but there could be some emotions surrounding that one. Washington looks like it has the personnel in place to make a move in Year 5 under Steve Sarkisian. Beating Oregon at home would feel transformative to Huskies fans. And to Ducks fans, though they will surely harrumph the notion.

The reality for Helfrich is one that no other Ducks coach faced before: Three losses is a bad season. Failing to win the Pac-12 is a disappointment. And Ducks fans are ready for their national title, if you please, Mark.

Helfrich now moves into the corner office in the Moshofsky Center. It's a big space to fill. No man has sat there who did any better than Kelly.

We suspect it will mostly be business as usual. But you only know when you know. Further, the true measure won't come in 2013. We'll only have a good idea of the Helfrich era if three or four years from now the Ducks remain atop the Pac-12 and ranked in the top 10.

Some links:
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The overwhelming sentiment at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the game will be Chip Kelly's last as the Oregon head coach before he fills one of the seven new NFL vacancies. If that is so, the equally overwhelming sentiment is that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will step into Kelly's spot atop the program.

Kelly, clearly anticipating the NFL questions, has fought off all inquires on the matter by saying he is only focused on the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday. He has emphasized that the NFL talk is not a distraction to him or his team, and that he and his players have not addressed it.

His players have been on message, too.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsMark Helfrich was a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, before joining Oregon in 2009.
Said linebacker Michael Clay: "He doesn't talk about it. No body talks about it."

And offensive lineman Kyle Long: "There isn't really a lot of talk about that. You can control what you can control. What we can control is our attitude, our effort and our preparation."

And quarterback Marcus Mariota: "Whatever happens, happens. Coach Kelly will make a decision that is best suited for him. Whatever he does, this team will support him."

And center Hroniss Grasu: "He's our head coach right now. That's the only way I can look at it. I will play for whoever is our head coach right now. Right now, it's Coach Kelly. I won't look too far ahead."

As for Helfrich, he also is staking out a "wait-and-see" position: "I don't think [Kelly leaving for the NFL is] a slam-dunk like everyone else does. I hope he stays at Oregon forever," he said.

It's important to note there have been no concrete reports of contact with NFL teams, and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said he's received no courtesy calls from an interested NFL team. It's plausible -- and very, very Chip Kelly -- that Kelly's non-denials emerge from his enjoyment in making the media awkwardly tap dance in front of him.

Still, if Kelly's departure is just days away, it is reasonable to get an early measure of Helfrich, who has been a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado -- he was the Buffs' offensive coordinator, too -- before Kelly hired him in 2009.

"He's really smart, really intelligent," Kelly said of why he made Helfrich his first offensive coordinator. "He brought a different perspective to our staff, because he had a different background. He wasn't a spread guy. I wanted to bring someone in who wasn't going to tell us what we already knew."

When asked what advice he'd give to Helfrich if he became a head coach, Kelly said he'd give him the same advice Rich Brooks gave Mike Bellotti and Bellotti gave him: "Be yourself. You can't be someone else."

Which is interesting in itself, because Helfrich is different than Kelly. Very different.

"Coach Kelly is the yin and he's the yang," Ducks senior running back Kenjon Barner said. "Coach Kelly is on you. He knows what he wants and he's going to get it out of you. Coach Helf is kind of that guy who brings you along smoothly, rather than rough. Good cop, bad cop. Sometimes they switch roles."

That said, continuity is a big reason to promote Helfrich. Oregon has a team culture, system of practicing and schemes on both sides of the ball that have been working fabulously over the past four years with Kelly. Helfrich wouldn't be expected to change much. Further, he'd likely be able to retain some of the Ducks' staff because Kelly probably will need to hire veteran NFL coaches to offset his lack of professional experience.

Still, Helfrich, as Kelly would advise, is unlikely to transform into a Kelly clone. He's worked with a number of successful coaches, so he'd likely put his own stamp on existing systems.

"You take a little bit of everybody with you," Helfrich said. "I've learned a ton from Chip."

While some players seemed -- for obvious reasons -- uncomfortable with the topic, there was a strong undercurrent of support for Helfrich, and not just with offensive players.

"He's a great guy and knows what he's doing," linebacker Michael Clay said. "Everyone respects him on the team and around the league. I think he'd do a great job as a head coach."

Helfrich is certain to be a head coach at some point. The big question to be answered after the Fiesta Bowl is whether that ascension is just days away.
Nick Aliotti, a native of Walnut Creek, Calif., a graduate of Pittsburg High School, a former freshman MVP at running back for UC Davis, arrived at Oregon as a graduate assistant in 1978 under Rich Brooks. The Ducks celebrated his arrival by going 1-10.

After a 4-7 season the next year, Oregon State coach Joe Avezzano hired him to coach running backs. In 1984, he was the offensive coordinator at Chico State. The Ducks went 6-5 that year.

Funny how things turn out. Back then, there was little to suggest Aliotti would become a defensive coach, or that he would circle back to Oregon, or that there would be any reason to go back to Eugene. After all, if Aliotti wanted to climb the coaching ladder, didn't he want to go to a place where you had a chance to win?

Yet here he is, now close enough to an Oregon lifer that we're going to call him that, a guy who has been a firsthand witness to a program rising from nothing to respectability to legitimate goodness. And then to the cusp of greatness.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWhile Oregon's offense gets all the hype, Nick Aliotti's defense has also shined this season.
"I'll tell you how it feels for me personally," Aliotti said. "It feels fantastic."

And anyone who knows Aliotti, 58, will guess that there was a prelude to that quote -- "It's not about me" -- and a postlude -- "It's really, really special" -- as well as some entertaining parentheticals along the way.

Yet this season includes something new: respect.

Aliotti has been a good defensive coordinator for a long time, although his defenses often were outmanned. During the Ducks' rise under Chip Kelly, Oregon has played better defense than most folks realized, but it often required observers to look behind the numbers. And who has time for that?

Yet before this season began, more than a few pundits, including folks on the benighted East Coast, took a look at the Ducks' depth chart and noted that there were some salty characters on the mean side of the ball. The Ducks had some size to go along with their speed. There were some 300-pounders inside and there was, as coaches say, "great length" across the board, with seven of the top nine defensive linemen over 6-foot-4. And four over 6-6.

They passed the sight test.

What about the football part of football? Glad you asked. ESPN's numbers guy, Brad Edwards, took a closer look at the Oregon defense this week, noting that if you go beyond some superficial numbers that don't look impressive, you can make a case that the Ducks are playing defense on par with the finest teams in the country.

He took a measure of the Oregon defense only when an opponent was within 28 points, noting, "Using only statistics from when the score is within 28 points allows us to evaluate how teams perform when the starters are on the field and playing with maximum intensity."

What did he find? First, he found the Ducks have allowed 19 touchdowns this season -- one a pick-six against the offense -- but only seven were given up when the game margin was within 28 points.

Then he entered that into his Bat Computer.

Here's what he found. The Ducks ranked third in the nation, behind only Alabama and Notre Dame, in points per drive at 0.89. The Ducks allow just 4.03 yards per play, which ranks fourth in the nation. The Oregon defense leads the nation in red zone TD percentage at 22 percent, or four TDs allowed in 18 drives. Finally, on third-down conversion defense, the Ducks rank second, trailing only Oregon State, with a 24.7 percent success rate.

Not bad, eh?

Aliotti's defense, however, will face a major test on a big stage Saturday when it visits USC. Although the Trojans' offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this season, it still has all the main players from the squad that turned in a scintillating performance a year ago while ending the Ducks' 21-game Autzen Stadium winning streak with a 38-35 victory.

"Those great receivers and the quarterback were able to have their way with us last year," Aliotti said. "They beat our defense last year with their offense."

Matt Barkley completed 26 of 34 passes for 323 yards with four touchdowns as the Trojans rolled up 462 yards. Marqise Lee, then a true freshman, caught eight passes for 187 yards and a score. Aliotti, by the way, was perhaps more upset about the Trojans' 139 rushing yards than the passing numbers.

Barkley is a four-year starter who has seen just about every defense. He's not easy to fool. But that doesn't mean Aliotti isn't going to try.

"The best I can answer is we're going to do a little bit of all of it," he said.

And Aliotti has a lot of tricks in his bag. When you talk to opposing offensive coaches, it's clear the Ducks' defense has evolved in the past few years. Calling it "multiple" doesn't do it justice. You could almost call it "nonstandard." Aliotti will give a general idea of the evolution, but he doesn't want even that to appear in print.

USC coach Lane Kiffin coached the Trojans' offense under Pete Carroll from 2001 to '06. He sees dramatic changes.

"You see no similarities," he said. "You'd think it was a different staff. Obviously it's not; they've been there forever. I don't know what changed, but they are very different. They are very multiple. They change fronts. They disguise things very well."

Aliotti has played a lot of chess games with opposing offenses since he returned to Oregon for good in 1999. Shutting down Barkley and the Trojans on Saturday would help him further secure his grandmaster bona fides this fall.

Ranking the SEC coaching jobs

July, 10, 2012
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The SEC has the reputation of being the toughest conference to play/coach in. But what is it like to be in charge of one of these high-profile programs?

That's where we come in. As we take a deeper look into programs around the country this week, we're looking at how each program stacks up in every conference. In the SEC, there's always a fierce arms race going on, and getting left behind can be dangerous.

Today, we're ranking each coaching job in the SEC. We considered a lot of factors, including location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.

Here's how we ranked all 14 SEC jobs.

1. Florida: For starters, Florida is all about location, location, location. It's in a state that produces some of the country's top talent and it's a state that players around the country will flock to. Thanks to Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Florida has become a national brand like Ohio State, USC, Notre Dame and Texas. Recent significant facility upgrades and a tremendous fan base have only helped this be the top job in the SEC.

2. LSU: It's one of just a handful of schools around the country that's considered the school in the state. Every football player in Louisiana grows up wanting to play in Tiger Stadium. Louisiana is also extremely bountiful when it comes to producing football players, and Texas is right around the corner. The facilities are top notch and the program has great tradition and a tremendous fan base.

3. Alabama: Talk about extraordinary tradition. Though there were some down years before Nick Saban took over, there's no escaping the success this program has had. Prospects from all over are drawn to Alabama. There's tremendous support inside and outside for the program, and the facilities are some of the best in the nation. This is also a school that didn't hesitate to pay Saban the big bucks when the opportunity arose.

4. UGA: There is so much talent around Athens that it's hard for Georgia not to have a top recruiting class year in and year out. Georgia's facilities are near the top of the conference, and the campus is gorgeous. The tradition and game-day atmosphere would draw anyone in.

5. Auburn: While it's constantly knocking heads with Alabama, Auburn has plenty going for it. The campus is gorgeous, the stadium is one of the best game-day venues in the league and the fan base is extremely passionate. Auburn is in the heart of recruiting central in the Southeast, and the recently updated facilities are a major plus.

6. Tennessee: While the Vols have struggled with consistency on the field lately, this is still an attractive job. Nearly $50 million was spent to build a brand-new football complex, Neyland Stadium has been spruced up over the years and the program does have a rich tradition. Though with the state not being so talent-rich, coaches are forced to target other areas in the Southeast to recruit.

7. Texas A&M: The Aggies' tradition is well-known in college football. The game-day atmosphere is one of the best in the country, there is a great alumni base, their home state is filled with elite talent and the school is huge. Now Texas A&M can sell playing in the SEC to Texas athletes. But one thing that does hang over the program is that it's still playing second to the Longhorns.

8. South Carolina: Spurrier has completely transformed South Carolina and proved he can win there. The state has an underrated talent pool, and Spurrier has made it a priority to get the best talent to come his way. The fan base is one of the most loyal ones in the country, standing by the Gamecocks even during the rougher years.

9. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are basically the pro team of the state, and Bobby Petrino's success made it a very attractive job nationally. The fan base takes great pride in its program, and recent facility upgrades have really helped draw more attention to Arkansas. However, the state isn't as rich with talent as other southeastern states, meaning the Razorbacks have to turn to other states, such as Texas and Oklahoma, for more prospects.

10. Missouri: New to the SEC, Missouri is making sure it keeps up in the arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium. There's good tradition at Mizzou, but Gary Pinkel really turned things around and made the Tigers more relevant when he arrived in 2001. Location could be an issue for some southeastern prospects, but Pinkel and his staff are making a conscious effort to expand recruiting efforts into Georgia and Florida.

11. Ole Miss: Oxford is the quintessential college town, rich with history and a game-day atmosphere envied by many, thanks to the Grove. The campus is beautiful, and the football facilities are pretty impressive. However, consistently recruiting top talent to Ole Miss has been a major issue for coaches, as the Rebels have won nine games or more just five times since 1971 and have had 11 head coaches during that time.

12. Mississippi State: Starkville can be a little out of the way for people, and like Ole Miss Mississippi State is having to try to keep top Mississippi talent away from the likes of Alabama and LSU. The fan base is very loyal, and the program has seen a bit of resurgence since Dan Mullen's arrival. The school is also breaking ground on a new $25 million football facility.

13. Kentucky: The football program will always be in the shadow of the basketball program. Even though Rich Brooks turned things around, it's hard to sustain that when Kentucky has to go out of state so much for recruiting and has to do a lot of projecting with prospects. Before last season, the Wildcats went to five straight bowl games, and recent upgrades to the Nutter Training Facility have players excited.

14. Vanderbilt: The high academic standards leave coaches without the opportunity to recruit some of the top prospects, and Vandy only has been bowl eligible five times in school history. While the administration drug its feet on facilities for so long, the school agreed to upgrade facilities, including adding a new multipurpose practice facility, when James Franklin received a new contract last fall.
Chip KellyKirby Lee/US PresswireChip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks remain focused on taking care of business on the field.
Wise folks have said and written many things about dealing with the hills and valleys of life. Most of us are well aware that it's a mistake to get too high when things are good or too low when they aren't. We know it's better to focus on things we can control and to avoid allowing our emotions to overcome constructive decision-making and ensuing action.

And if any of that were easy, wise folks would spend more time talking and writing about other things.

So we have Oregon. No college football program in the country has combined stunning successes and swirling controversies over the past two-plus seasons as much as Oregon has under coach Chip Kelly. Perhaps even more amazing than the frenetic tempo and creativity of the Ducks' offense is their ability to make news in positive and negative ways, yet remained focused.

Year 1 started with a humiliating loss at Boise State and a punch from then-Ducks RB LeGarrette Blount and ended with a Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth. Year 2 started with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli -- a Heisman Trophy candidate -- getting booted from the team and ended with another Pac-10 championship and a berth in the national title game.

Year 3? It's started with an NCAA inquiry into the recruitment of redshirt freshman running back Lache Seastrunk, who decided to transfer last weekend, and a $25,000 payment to his mentor, Willie Lyles, who is a recruiting scout and alleged "street agent."

Where will Year 3 end? Will this be the year that the Ducks do get distracted and upended by off-field issues?

"I think the media around here is the smartest people I've ever been around my entire life," Kelly said with what sources said may have been some sarcastic shadings.

"If they voted us No. 1 in the conference and No. 3 in the country, they must not think it is a distraction. So we shouldn't let it be a distraction, because I don't think anyone would vote us No. 3 in the country if you guys thought it was a distraction."

Zing! The capacious "Book of Quotable Chip" adds another entry.

Kelly then referred to one of his handful of mantras: "We have the same mentality all the time. We have a vision for what this football program is supposed to be about and we prepare against that vision. We compete against that vision every Saturday and that's how we measure ourselves. ... We are not concerned with any outside influences, whether it be praise or blame."

Kelly's ability to impose that philosophy -- all part of his "Win the day" credo -- has been remarkable, the fuel for the Ducks' rapid rise in the college football pecking order. When you talk to his players, they either parrot what he says verbatim or provide their own little twist.

Said redshirt junior running back LaMichael James: "I focus on my team and that's it. I don't really care what outsiders have to say."

Still, there's just a little bit of double-speak. Don't believe for a moment the Ducks are unaware of -- and not following -- both the intrigue (Lyles & the NCAA!) and hype (national title contender!) that surrounds them. Kelly claims he doesn't pay attention to what reporters write, but he is curiously apt to tweak them for their stories -- Hey, Chip! -- most notably when they are wrong.

And the players, though totally bought into the Temple of Chip, are the same way. They claim they never discuss the day's headlines. Balderdash.

"Everybody wants to say all this about Oregon," redshirt junior quarterback Darron Thomas said. "We don't like that. We've just been working hard, getting ready for the season, ready to shut everybody up, ready to come out and play ball and forget about all these other allegations that are eventually going to come out."

No one knows when things are "going to come out." The NCAA hasn't even gotten around to sending Oregon an official letter of inquiry, which would spell out how the organization plans to apply vague rules about the use of scouting services. Those who say they know the endgame are lying. Nonetheless, there's been lots of guessing that Oregon and Kelly are in big trouble, with a couple of columns suggesting Kelly will be fired.

"I hope whoever wrote that, and I didn't read it, isn't our athletic director or our president," Kelly said. "I'm very confident in everything that will happen."

It's sometimes hard to believe that Kelly has been a coach in FBS football for just four seasons. Recall that in 2006, he was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, a guy only a handful of offensive aficionados knew of. His two-plus years of leading Oregon have been more eventful than entire careers for many head coaches.

When asked if Kelly has shown any stress or strain during his tumultuous tenure, James almost seems amused. "He always seems the same to me," James said. "He maybe seems a little more relaxed."

James also called Kelly "a phenomenal coach." While Rich Brooks made Oregon respectable, and Mike Bellotti created a consistent winner, it's fair to say that Kelly's dynamic leadership has pushed the program to heights that no Ducks fans imagined it could reach, even mega-booster Phil Knight. And for that, James said, Kelly deserves predominant credit.

"Coach Kelly changed the whole identity of the program," said James, who redshirted in 2008, Bellotti's final season as head coach. "Everything is 100 percent different from when I was a true freshman."

What did Kelly change? "I literally mean every single thing," James said.

Of course, Brooks and Bellotti were able to avoid any major NCAA issues, too.

What's next for the Ducks? A win over LSU, a third consecutive conference title and another run at a national championship? NCAA sanctions?

Said Kelly, "I don't know what is going to happen next. No one knows what happens in the future."

One thing is likely: With Kelly and the Ducks, it at least figures to be interesting.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Only five teams in the rugged SEC have been to bowl games each of the past five years.

Four of those teams are staples in this league -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.

[+] EnlargeJoker Phillips
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireJoker Phillips was fired by Kentucky after the team suffered its eighth straight loss of the season.
Kentucky is the little-known fifth member of that group, and the guy entering his second season as the coach of the Wildcats is growing weary of hearing about it.

Joker Phillips, who returned to his alma mater in 2003 when Rich Brooks was hired, said it’s time the Wildcats move past the whole idea of merely getting to bowl games.

He’s confident, and so are his players, that there’s a lot more out there for a program that has made huge strides since Brooks took over the probation-ridden wreck eight years ago.

“We expect to compete for titles here,” Phillip said. “There’s been a lot of talk here about us having a chance to play in our sixth straight bowl game. That’s something we want to be in the past, strings of bowl games. We want to be talking about how long we can be in the title race.

“You look at last year, and we beat the team that won the East (South Carolina) and played the team that won the West (Auburn) toe-to-toe. The thing we have to do is be consistent in our play and be consistent in everything that we do here.”

The bewitching word there is “consistent.”

After rallying from an 18-point halftime deficit and upsetting South Carolina last season, Kentucky wound up losing four of its last six games and finishing 6-7, its first losing season since 2005.

For perspective, the Wildcats have suffered through 13 losing seasons since 1990.

But from 2006 through 2009, they won seven or more games every season, including three straight bowl games.

“The one thing we haven’t been able to do is get enough talent on both sides of the ball,” Phillips said. “When our offense has been up, our defense has been down. When our defense has been up, we were down offensively for a couple of years.

“We feel now that our defense has a chance to play at a championship level. The thing we have to do is make sure our offense is ready to compete at a championship level with all the production that we lost last year.”

Phillips has made a number of changes to his staff after taking the reins from Brooks following the 2009 season, and one of the most significant moves he made was bringing in Rick Minter to run the Wildcats’ defense.

Minter put in a whole new scheme this spring, one that will use several variations of hybrid players and will be predicated upon getting Kentucky’s best athletes closer to the line of scrimmage.

“We want to create more turnovers and create more negative plays, and this is going to give us a chance to use our talent on defense,” Phillips said.

Speaking of talent, the Wildcats lost a ton of it on offense, starting with Randall Cobb, who scored touchdowns four different ways last season and broke Darren McFadden’s SEC single-season record for all-purpose yardage.

Also gone are quarterback Mike Hartline, running back Derrick Locke and receiver Chris Matthews.

Combined, Cobb, Hartline, Locke and Matthews pretty much were Kentucky’s offense last season.

“Not having those guys is going to be different, no question,” said junior quarterback Morgan Newton, who will take over for Hartline. “But there’s a lot of young talent in this program and more coming. We have guys who can make plays. They just haven’t had a lot of chances in games.”

And as Phillips correctly points out, it wasn’t like Cobb, Locke and Matthews were household names when they came to Kentucky. Cobb wasn’t heavily recruited. Locke was a track athlete and Matthews was a junior college signee.

One of the best things the Wildcats have done in the Brooks-Phillips era is develop players.

“We just have to continue to develop, and that’s what we’ve been good at, developing players, and then utilizing those players’ talents,” said Phillips, who was Kentucky’s offensive coordinator before taking over the head coaching duties. “We’ve been good at getting players in position to make plays.”

Phillips spent a large part of his first season as head coach at Kentucky selling his vision for the program … to fans and to his players.

He doesn’t feel as much pressure to do that as he’s entering his second season. Plus, he’s confident his players got the message a while back.

“I think I’ll be a better coach because I’m not out there as much trying to sell the program,” Phillips said. “I’ve been able concentrate more on football this year, especially having a staff in place now that can also sell the plan.”

Any questions about whether or not Phillips had what it took to rule with an iron fist went out the window last season when he suspended Hartline for the bowl game.

Hartline, who had never previously been in trouble, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and alcohol intoxication in December following a disturbance in a residential neighborhood.

He was coming off his best season after throwing for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns, but Phillips didn’t blink. He suspended his senior quarterback, saying that there was a standard all players would be held to when they embarrassed the program.

It’s the kind of move very few coaches would have the guts to make right before a bowl game, especially with the charges being what they were.

But, then, Phillips also suspended starters Danny Trevathan, DeQuin Evans, Winston Guy, Ronnie Sneed and Matthews for portions of games earlier in the season. Phillips also suspended his starting defensive tackle, Mark Crawford, for the remainder of the season just prior to the Tennessee game.

Trevathan, the SEC’s leading tackler a year ago and the Wildcats’ top returning defensive player, said last season was eye-opening for everybody.

“I missed a meeting by accident, and he sat me down (for the first quarter) against Florida,” Trevathan said. “He might be named Joker, but he ain’t no joke.”

And neither is Phillips’ stated challenge of getting the Wildcats past what has seemed to be a ceiling of seven- and eight-win seasons.

Doing that will entail breaking through in the SEC, which is an ominous task in itself considering the Wildcats haven’t finished with a winning league record since 1977.

What’s more, Trevathan figures people will dismiss Kentucky more than ever now that Hartline, Cobb and Locke are gone.

“We like when people think like that,” he said. “That’s just going to make us hungrier.

“It’s time for us to make that right turn in the right direction and go ahead and be one of the top teams in the SEC … instead of just being mediocre.”

Cobb gets one last shot at Vols in Neyland

November, 24, 2010
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Randall Cobb, Kentucky’s Mr. Do-It-All, figures he’s seen 30 games or more in Neyland Stadium.

Growing up 15 minutes away in nearby Alcoa, Tenn., Cobb caught the Big Orange fever at an early age thanks to his father, Randall Cobb, Sr.

“I was a Tennessee fan and took him to the games when he was little,” Cobb Sr. said. “He got a chance to see Tee Martin play, to see Charlie Garner play, to see some of the great players who’ve come through there.”

At one point, Cobb even sold hot dogs during Tennessee games, although he jokes that he wasn’t cut out for sales when there was a football game being played.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Randall Cobb
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesKentucky's do-everything star Randall Cobb grew up a Tennessee fan. The Wildcats and Vols meet on Saturday.
“I sold hot dogs for about two weeks at the stadium until I got tired of carrying the little pale around,” Cobb said. “It was pretty heavy. Whenever I got tired of doing it or bored, I’d sit on the steps and start watching the game.”

As a fundraiser, his high school basketball team also worked the concession stands at Neyland Stadium.

“I’ve got a few memories from Neyland,” Cobb said. “I need one more good one.”

How about the ultimate one?

Cobb gets his final shot at the Vols in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. He wasn’t even born the last time Kentucky beat Tennessee in a football game. For that, matter, nobody on Kentucky’s team was.

The Vols have won 25 straight games in the series, the longest active winning streak in the country involving rivals that play every year.

And it just so happens this year that Tennessee (5-6, 2-5) needs to win this game to go to a bowl. Kentucky (6-5, 2-5) has already qualified for a bowl game.

Cobb admits that he was probably too stoked as a freshman when the Wildcats came to Neyland Stadium, and it affected his play.

“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t get too hyped up for these type of games because you don’t play as well,” said Cobb, who’s second nationally with 2,047 all-purpose yards. “So I’ve been trying to stay as cool and collected as I can, just to make sure I’m ready to handle my business on Saturday.”

Make no mistake, though. Inside, the fire will burn as brightly as ever for one of college football’s finest all-around players.

Cobb’s recruitment, or lack thereof, by Tennessee has been well-documented. The Vols didn’t offer a scholarship until late in the process and did so only after Cobb put on a show in the state playoffs.

“We really didn’t hear anything from Tennessee until right before the state championship game,” Cobb Sr. said. “We received a brochure about their camp, but that’s about it. They never really showed any interest in him until there at the end.”

By that time, Cobb was already committed to Kentucky. He did so that summer prior to his senior year of high school after attending one of the Wildcats’ camps.

Kentucky had promised him a chance to play quarterback, and Tennessee made that same promise when the Vols finally got around to offering.

But neither father nor son were ever completely sold that the Vols were being genuine.

“We didn’t feel they were being upfront and honest,” Cobb Sr. said. “They said they were going to change their system and go to a spread to fit Randall’s talents. But then later on, they wanted to know why he didn’t come to camp so they could see him play. That was a red flag right there.

“Coach (Rich) Brooks told Randall he would like to have him as a receiver, and Randall told him his heart was at quarterback. Coach Brooks told him they would give him a chance at quarterback, and that’s where Randall played his freshman year.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Randall Cobb
Marvin Gentry/US PRESSWIRERandall Cobb has caught 66 passes for 839 yards and seven touchdowns. He's rushed for 376 yards and five touchdowns. He's also completed 5 of 8 passes for 54 yards and three touchdowns.
“I really think Randall just felt more at ease with everything and everybody at Kentucky and more at home, too.”

The clincher for Cobb was that Kentucky was there from the beginning and Tennessee got to the party so late, especially with his being right there in the shadow of Neyland Stadium.

“I mean, coach (Phillip) Fulmer practically drove by my house every day on his way to work,” said Cobb, who helped lead his high school to four straight state championships.

He insists he’s not bitter, and in Tennessee’s defense, says the Vols’ staff did what a lot of coaching staffs do when they miss on a player during the recruiting process.

They got too caught up in all the measurables and forgot about the intangibles.

“They didn’t realize how much heart I play with and how much the game means to me,” Cobb said. “I think they overlooked some of the qualities I have as a player that make me who I am. But that happens. It happens all the time in recruiting.

“That’s something I can’t control. I don’t know how they feel about it right now at Tennessee. All I can tell you is that I’m excited to be where I am.

“I believe things work out for a reason, and I wouldn’t want to be any place else but Kentucky.”

His family has been able to scrounge up 42 tickets for this game. Relatives are coming in from out of town, while several others will be making the short drive from Alcoa to Neyland Stadium.

Cobb was back home last week to have his high school jersey retired. He was peppered then with questions about Tennessee.

He’s said repeatedly this week that he wants to let his pads do the talking.

They’ve already had plenty to say this season.

Cobb needs 264 yards in his next two games to break Darren McFadden’s SEC record for all-purpose yardage (2,310) in a season. He’s accounted for 16 touchdowns – seven receiving, five rushing, three passing and one on a punt return.

His 66 catches are second in the SEC to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery. And with 839 receiving yards and 376 rushing yards, he has a chance to become the first player in SEC history to collect 1,000 receiving yards and 500 rushing yards in the same season.

It all culminates this weekend at a place where Cobb spent more than a few fall Saturday afternoons as a kid.

“It’s in the back of my mind, something you can’t ignore,” Cobb said of his last shot at the Vols in Neyland Stadium. “But if I can just find a way to control my emotions before the game, I think we’ve got a great chance to get a win, and it will mean that much more in the end.

“I want to feel it, not sit around thinking about it.”

Oregon's rise is not temporary

November, 24, 2010
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Shy Huntington surely never guessed it would take this long for Oregon to become a national power. After he grabbed three interceptions in the Ducks' 14-0 Rose Bowl victory over the Pennsylvania Quakers, he probably thought things were just beginning for the Ducks.

It was 1917.

From 1918 through 1988, however, Oregon would play in just five bowl games, winning one. Its first coach to win more than 33 games was Len Casanova, who went 82-73-8 from 1951-66. Oregon's next coach to post a winning record? Mike Bellotti.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireChip Kelly has the Ducks two wins away from their first undefeated season of the modern era.
Oregon is one of only 10 programs nationally to have played in at least 17 bowl games over the past 21 years, but it's clearly a member of the nouveau riche. The Ducks haven't finished unbeaten in the modern era and they've never won a national championship.

Yet now they are two wins away from doing the former and three from accomplishing the latter, starting with a home date with No. 21 Arizona on Friday.

This is uncharted territory for Oregon, but it also feels as if the arrival isn't temporary. The momentum -- having the right coach, great facilities, passionate fan base, national recruiting, a sugar daddy billionaire booster -- suggests Oregon is starting construction on a mansion in the neighborhood with programs like Florida, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and USC.

A character in "The Sun Also Rises" was asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That description is apt for the Ducks, only in the opposite direction. Oregon broke through in the 1990s under Rich Brooks. Bellotti won 116 games from 1995-2008 -- the most in program history by a wide margin -- and created a Pac-10 and national contender.

Second-year coach Chip Kelly? He's on the cusp of winning a second consecutive Pac-10 title and earning a second BCS bowl berth, only this time in the national championship game on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz. That qualifies as a good start to a career as a head coach.

For an Oregon fan in his or her 50s or 60s, this is a fairly shocking development. You remember cold, rainy days with only a few thousand fans on hand to watch the Ducks lose. You remember going down to Washington 58-0 (1973). Or tying rival Oregon State 0-0 in the 1983 Civil War (two bad teams, pouring rain, eleven fumbles, five interceptions, and four missed field goals, the last Division I game to end in a scoreless tie).

If you are, say, a 19-year-old freshman at Oregon, you grew up with the Ducks as a Pac-10 contender and a team that regularly appeared in the national rankings. Your first memory might be of Kenny Wheaton returning an interception 97 yards for a touchdown to beat Washington in 1994, the celebrated linchpin play of the Ducks' first Rose Bowl season in 37 years. You see your team headed for its sixth season with 10 or more wins since 2000.

You read about the construction of a new, $41 million, six-story, 130,000 square foot operations building for the football program that will begin early next year, and you (maybe) think, "About time."

"There is a difference between the people who have seen this program for 40 years and the people that have seen us for four years," Kelly said. "They obviously see it through a different set of eyes. This program wasn't always one of the top programs in the country... I still talk to some of the people who can remember the days gone by, when having a winning season was a big deal and making it to a bowl game was a really big deal."

Kelly adds that he's only known the good days. He arrived in 2007 as offensive coordinator, and Oregon has won 39 games -- and counting -- since then and finished each season nationally ranked, the last two in the top 11. Contemplating the present versus the past with nostalgia for days gone by? As he will tell you -- over and over and over and over -- he's only about winning the day, which is today and nothing else. Still.

"That's hard for me to fathom, this team struggling just to be bowl eligible," he said. "That's not the Oregon I know."

There is some respectful jealousy among other Pac-10 coaches. Want to know why California coach Jeff Tedford gets perhaps more understanding from sportswriters than Bears fans? Compare and contrast Oregon's facilities and the Bears'. It's major league vs. single-A (though Cal is -- finally -- in the process of a major stadium project that should help that).

Mike Stoops has led Arizona out of the Pac-10 cellar, but his facilities don't compare with Oregon's either. He noted -- indirectly -- that the Big 12's nouveau riche power, Oklahoma State, became a contender shortly after its billionaire sugar daddy, T. Boone Pickens, started to churn hundreds of millions of dollars into the program.

"They are both great examples of investing in your program, investing in your players and bringing first-class facilities to your program, and putting a lot of value to that," Stoops said. "You can see what's happened with Oregon. They continually won seven, eight, nine [games]. Now, all of a sudden, the last few years, they are competing for championships and competing for the national championship... Certainly, we are trying to do the same thing here in rebuilding our facilities as well."

Asked about whether he felt the powers-that-be at Arizona understood the value of facility upgrades, Stoops replied, "I can't erase 125 years of not going to the Rose Bowl. As much pressure as I can put on myself, I can't take all that responsibility. It can't be just all bad playing and all coaching."

(We, obviously, could start to debate the ethics and institutional value of the arms race in big-time college football when there are budget shortfalls on the academic side of things, but that prickly topic is for another day.)

Oregon's ascension also is fortuitously timed alongside the fall of USC. While the Ducks have won three of four versus the Trojans, the departure of Pete Carroll and the arrival of NCAA sanctions figure to benefit the Ducks as they tighten their moorings among the national elite.

Of course, the deal is not yet done. Irritated Washington fans, who have seen their Northwest supremacy taken away, would quibble: "Hey, win a Rose Bowl in the facemask era, would 'ya!" The Ducks haven't done that since Huntington's heroics. Two games remain in the regular season, and then there's the matter of closing the deal in Glendale.

But it's hard not to feel that Oregon is on the cusp of arriving. Consider this: Even if the Ducks don't win the national title game, when you look at what they have coming back in 2011, they are a good bet to begin next fall as the preseason No. 1.

Three-point stance: Ducks are beatable

September, 22, 2010
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1. Rich Brooks, the former head coach at Oregon and Kentucky, has seen the No. 5 Ducks play the past two weeks. “They’re a very, very good football team,” Brooks said. “They have a lot of speed and skill on offense and they are very quick on defense. I’m not sure they can stand up to Stanford. Arizona is a physical team, too.” The Cardinal, the only Pac-10 team to beat the Ducks a year ago, play at Oregon on Oct. 2.

2. I admire how WAC commissioner Karl Benson has talked tough about holding Fresno State and Nevada to their league commitment into 2012. The parties are negotiating. It’s encouraging to see what happened in the Big 12. Nebraska and Colorado said they didn’t owe the league anything. The Big 12 said they owed $35 million. The parties settled on about $15 million from the two schools combined. The one difference: The Big 12 wants to move on to its lucrative future. No one is describing the WAC’s future as lucrative.

3. I’m guessing that Tulane coach Bob Toledo, discussing how hard the Green Wave played in their Sept. 11 loss to Ole Miss, didn’t intend to comment on the intelligence of anyone playing Monday Night Football. Said Toledo, “I’ve never been one of those guys to come away with moral victories. It’s kind of like the Saints and the 49ers last night, you either win or you lose. There is no gray matter.”

Joker Phillips eager to take next step

September, 1, 2010
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Joker Phillips opened his first game-week SEC teleconference as Kentucky’s head coach Wednesday raving about his team’s attitude.

That’s fitting, because it’s Phillips’ attitude that most people who really know him point to as one of the main reasons he’ll be successful in maintaining what Rich Brooks built at Kentucky and maybe even taking it another step or two.

“He keeps it real, and there are never any excuses with Coach Phillips,” Kentucky junior receiver Randall Cobb said. “He’s been very clear about what his goals are for this program, and we’re all on the same page.

[+] EnlargeJoker Phillips
Mark Zerof/US PresswireOverall team speed is one trait coach Joker Phillips likes about this Kentucky team.
“There’s definitely another level for this program, and we’re working every day to get there.”

Phillips has branded his vision for getting there as “Operation Win.”

Needless to say, a win this Saturday against in-state rival Louisville would go a long way toward getting Phillips’ new regime off to a good start.

The Wildcats have won three straight in this series. That’s after losing four in a row when Brooks first arrived.

Already, Phillips has generated a lot of momentum on the recruiting trail. The Wildcats have commitments from three of the state’s top four prospects. A win over the Cardinals would only underscore to recruits in that state and elsewhere that Phillips is serious about making Kentucky a serious contender in the SEC.

That’s not going to happen overnight. Even with all that Brooks accomplished at Kentucky, the Wildcats were just 16-40 in the SEC and never finished with a winning record in the league.

There were certainly gains, in particular road wins at Auburn and Georgia, and the four consecutive bowl appearances. The talent and depth on defense also got better.

And that’s precisely the area where Phillips feels best about this team, not only for this season, but on down the road.

One of his goals for this preseason was to have an extremely physical camp, to see how guys responded. He’s encouraged by what he saw from a speed, athleticism and overall strength standpoint in the defensive front.

“We’re a lot faster than we’ve been in the past few years,” Phillips said. “We’ve got a lot more team speed on defense. We’ve got a lot more defensive linemen in the program. Usually programs like ours struggle to find those guys, because they’re so hard to come by. But we’ve gone out and been able to attract a lot of defensive linemen. We have been one of the few teams in the last two years in this league to put three guys in the NFL up front. That’s been one of our strong points, getting defensive linemen here at Kentucky.

“I just think this team will be a lot faster and have more depth than we’ve had in a long time here.”

Phillips has downplayed the fact that he’s only the second black head football coach in SEC history.

With close friend Charlie Strong being on the other sideline Saturday and making his head coaching debut as well, Phillips understands the significance of two black head coaches squaring off against each other, especially when there are only five in the BCS ranks.

There’s absolutely a sense of pride for Phillips in helping to break down some of the barriers that prevented black coaches before him from landing head jobs in this league.

There's also a sense of pride in being able to do it at a place he calls home.

“That’s exciting [to be Kentucky's first black head football coach], but it’s more important being the head coach at Kentucky, a place that I grew up loving,” Phillips said. “Being from Kentucky, being an alumnus, being a letterman, it’s a dream come true.

“To me, it gives every little kid in Kentucky -- black, white, green -- a chance to be the coach here some day.”
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As just the second black head football coach in SEC history, Joker Phillips hasn’t had much time to ponder the bigger picture and what it all means.

He’s operating at light speed right now, having taken over a Kentucky program that Rich Brooks guided from the depths of NCAA probation to four straight bowl appearances.


Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIREKentucky coach Joker Phillips wants to up the intensity in the program.
Now, before anybody huffs at the Wildcats’ success the last four years and says everybody goes to a bowl game these days, take a look at who’s actually done it in the SEC.

Only four other teams in the league -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU -- can say they’ve been to the postseason each of the last four years.

Some pretty lofty company, indeed.

Phillips’ first order of business is keeping the Wildcats there, or as senior defensive end DeQuin Evans says, foregoing the water faucet route.

“We don’t want to be that team where you can turn us on one season and then turn us off the next season like a water faucet,” said Evans, who led the Wildcats in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (12.5) last season.

“That’s not what we’re looking for. Coach Phillips wants to elevate us. We want to be somewhere warm playing in the bowl game. The main thing is winning, and that’s winning in the classroom, in the community and out on the football field. It’s what we call ‘Operation Win.’ ”

Phillips, 47, was named the Wildcats’ coach-in-waiting following the 2007 season. Brooks was the one pushing for Phillips to be his successor, and it was important to him that he hand the program over to Phillips in good shape.

Under Brooks, Kentucky was able to upgrade its talent level significantly, particularly on defense, and built the kind of depth across the board the Wildcats have rarely possessed in the past.

The result: 30 wins over the last four years, three bowl victories and four consecutive seasons of at least seven wins -- something that previously hadn’t been accomplished at Kentucky in nearly 100 years.

Phillips, who grew up in the Bluegrass and played at Kentucky, thinks there’s still another level for the program.

“It will be difficult to get there,” he said. “But it was difficult to get to where we are now. It’s going to be difficult to climb these next couple of steps. We felt like we had to, and this is something Rich left us with, but we felt like we had to up the intensity level a little more, demand a little bit more.

“We do have more athletes now, and our athletes expect to win. We’ve been a little bit more demanding and have brought a little more intensity into the program to give the guys the belief that we’re just as good as that next tier of guys we have to cross over in this league.”

The Wildcats brought in former strength and conditioning coordinator Ray “Rock” Oliver to run their strength program, and the players say the results this offseason have been obvious. The other staff changes included Mike Summers coming over from from Arkansas to coach the offensive line, David Turner coming over from Mississippi State to coach the defensive line and former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin coming over from New Mexico to coach the receivers.

“The only way to improve a program is to win football games,” senior quarterback Mike Hartline said. “We brought in a great strength coach who pushes us to levels you never thought you could go to, and then you transfer that over to the field in practice.

“I don’t think a lot has changed with coach Phillips and how the program is run, but there is a whole new intensity and atmosphere to Kentucky football. We’re putting that extra time in and working a little more. That’s how you go from that seven-win season to that 10-win season like we should have had last year.”

Hartline’s knee injury in the South Carolina last season handcuffed the Wildcats, who had to turn to true freshman Morgan Newton at quarterback the rest of the way. Randall Cobb also played back there some, but more as a runner, and Kentucky’s passing game dropped to the bottom of the league.

Not surprisingly, the emphasis this spring has been improving the passing game and making it more efficient, and Phillips thinks the Wildcats will be much more diverse when it comes to throwing the football in 2010.

“Seeing the development of our skill people and Mike in his third year now and Morgan in his second year, we feel like we’ll be better in the passing game and know that we have to be better at it,” Phillips said. “We know we have to throw the football. We want to be balanced. We haven’t been balanced the last two years.”

For all of Brooks’ success in leading the Wildcats back to respectability, they still had a losing record in the SEC in seven of his eight seasons in Lexington.

So if there is a proverbial next step for Phillips and the program, it’s winning more consistently against SEC foes and taking down a few more nationally ranked teams. The triple-overtime win over eventual national champion LSU in 2007 was easily Brooks’ biggest win, but it was also one of only two wins the Wildcats managed against Top 25 teams during his tenure.

“We want to be in those names when you talk about SEC championship teams,” Cobb said. “We want to be in the notable games whenever they show them on ESPN. We’re still not getting the respect that we want. That’s one of the biggest things with this team. If we don’t get that respect, we want to make sure we go out and get it.

“We’ve beaten Georgia on the road, beaten LSU and won some big games, but we need to win more of them. We have to be consistent. We have to win five and six games in the league every year before we get to that status.”

Phillips counts his blessings every day to be taking over a program that has such a strong foundation. There’s nothing to clean up, because Brooks did it the right way.

“If you know the history behind this program, it seems like every year they’ve had some success, there have been some (NCAA) sanctions come behind it,” Phillips said. “This is a clean place. Rich has built a foundation of doing it the right way, and I want to build it the same way on that strong foundation he built for us.”

Phillips takes seriously his role in opening doors for other black head coaches, particularly in the SEC, but he’s not fixated on it. He’s fixated on elevating Kentucky’s program, recruiting and developing great players, graduating his players … and winning games.

“There’s no doubt we can open up doors,” Phillips said. “But again, it has to show up in the win column. If you look at Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin, they’re opening doors because they’re winning. If they were losing, those doors would be closing behind them. The best thing we can do is win games.”

Phillips says “we” because the three FBS head coaching jobs in the state of Kentucky are currently held by black men. Charlie Strong’s at Louisville and Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky.

As fate would have it, Phillips and Strong once worked together on the South Carolina staff and have remained close over the years.

Just recently, the three of them all signed footballs for each other with the year and each of their schools' logos.

“We cherish this moment,” Phillips said. “I play both of them. I wish Charlie would play Willie also. I’m looking forward to competing against those guys. We’ve already competed some in recruiting or as coordinators, but having a chance for all three of us to lead our own programs is a dream come true.”

SEC East coaching carousel

February, 26, 2010
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With LSU opening spring practice Monday, I thought it might be wise to go over all the coaching changes in the SEC this year.

As usual, it was a revolving door this past offseason. In fact, Auburn was the only school in the league that didn’t have any staff turnover. The final number of head coaches or assistants departing for various reasons was 31.

Some were fired. Others got better gigs, while there were a few that were swayed elsewhere (within the conference) for more money.

Here’s an Eastern Division breakdown of who’s out and who’s in for the 2010 season. We'll do the Western Division a little bit later:

FLORIDA

Who’s out: Associate head coach/defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator George Edwards, recruiting coordinator/receivers coach Billy Gonzales, cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford and running backs coach Kenny Carter.

Who’s in: Teryl Austin, who spent the last seven seasons as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive backs coach, is Florida’s new defensive coordinator. He replaces George Edwards, who held the job for less than a month before going back to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. Edwards replaced Charlie Strong, who left following the season to take the Louisville head job. Stan Drayton returns to coach running backs. He was at Florida earlier this decade before moving on to Tennessee and most recently Syracuse. D.J. Durkin will coach defensive ends and special teams after spending the last three seasons at Stanford. Zach Azzanni will coach receivers. He was previously the assistant head coach/receivers coach at Central Michigan.

GEORGIA

Who’s out: Defensive coordinator/secondary coach Willie Martinez, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach John Jancek and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris.

Who’s in: Former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham takes over as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. He was the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive line coach the last two seasons. Scott Lakatos will coach the defensive backs after spending the last six seasons on the Connecticut staff, and Warren Belin will coach linebackers after spending the last eight seasons on the Vanderbilt staff.

KENTUCKY

Who’s out: Head coach Rich Brooks, offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins and defensive line coach Rick Petri.

Who’s in: Joker Phillips, who was already the Wildcats’ coach-in-waiting, takes over the head-coaching reins. Mike Summers will coach the offensive line after serving as assistant head coach/offensive line coach at Arkansas the last two seasons. Former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin will coach the receivers. Martin was the quarterbacks coach at New Mexico last season. David Turner, who has coached at four different SEC schools, will coach the defensive line. Turner was at Mississippi State the last three seasons.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Who’s out: Offensive line coach/running game coordinator Eric Wolford.

Who’s in: Shawn Elliott replaces Wolford, who left to take the head coaching job at Youngstown State. Elliott has spent his entire coaching career at Appalachian State, including the last nine seasons as offensive line coach.

TENNESSEE

Who’s out: Head coach Lane Kiffin, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, quarterbacks coach David Reaves, receivers coach Frank Wilson, offensive line coach James Cregg, running backs coach/special teams coordinator Eddie Gran and defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza.

Who’s in: Derek Dooley was hired as the Vols’ head coach after Lane Kiffin left to take the Southern California head job. Justin Wilcox comes over from Boise State to be the defensive coordinator. Charlie Baggett will serve as assistant head coach and coach the receivers. He has 11 years of NFL experience and was on the St. Louis Rams’ staff last season. Harry Hiestand will coach the offensive line. He was the offensive line coach for the Chicago Bears the past five seasons. Darin Hinshaw will coach quarterbacks. He was the receivers coach at Memphis the past three seasons. Terry Joseph will coach the secondary and special tams. He was with Dooley at Louisiana Tech. Eric Russell will coach tight ends and coordinate special teams. He was also at Louisiana Tech with Dooley. Former Tennessee All-SEC performer Chuck Smith will coach the defensive line. He worked as an assistant defensive line coach with the New York Jets last season and has also tutored several defensive linemen over the years. He played professionally for the Atlanta Falcons.

VANDERBILT

Who’s out: Linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Warren Belin.

Who’s in: Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson is still working to replace Belin, who left to join the Georgia staff. Johnson promoted Jimmy Kiser to offensive coordinator, and Kiser will call all of the Commodores’ plays this season. Ted Cain remains on staff as the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator.

SEC programs of the decade

January, 21, 2010
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How’s this for balance?

Alabama recently won the SEC’s fifth national championship of the last decade, but the Crimson Tide weren’t able to crack the top 4 programs of the decade.

That’s because Alabama did most of its damage at the end of the decade.

Florida edged out LSU as the program of the decade, mostly because the Tigers fell off the last two years.

There were some tough calls after that.

Here’s what we came up with as far as ranking the SEC programs 1-12 over the last decade:

1. Florida: The Gators won three SEC titles, including one at the beginning of the decade under Steve Spurrier and two more toward the end of the decade under Urban Meyer. The two national titles were the same number as LSU, but the Gators finished in the Top 25 all 10 seasons and had more SEC wins (64) and more wins against Top 25 opponents (36) than anybody else in the league.

2. LSU: Nick Saban won a national title at LSU in 2003, and Les Miles won one in 2007. It was truly a memorable decade on the Bayou, and the Tigers could have made a strong case as the team of the decade had they not gone 17-9 over the last two seasons. They won three SEC titles and had five top-10 finishes. Miles had also won four straight bowl games until the loss to Penn State last month in the Capital One Bowl.

3. Georgia: Even though Alabama had such a strong close to the decade, Georgia was a pretty easy choice for the No. 3 spot. The Bulldogs won SEC titles in 2002 and 2005 and recorded six top-10 finishes, which was more than any other team in the league. They also finished the decade with a 30-22 record against nationally ranked foes.

4. Auburn: The Tigers were unlucky in 2004 in that they never got a chance to play for the national title despite finishing 13-0. They were also a game over .500 (22-21) against nationally ranked teams for the decade and had six more SEC wins than Alabama. Equally important, Auburn was 7-3 against Alabama head-to-head, which is the reason the Tigers beat out the Crimson Tide for the No. 4 spot.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide made the biggest move thanks to the last two years of the decade. They won the 2009 national title and have now gone two straight years where they haven’t lost an SEC regular-season game. Three top-10 finishes also helped push them past Tennessee and overcome four non-winning seasons during the decade.

6. Tennessee: The 1990s were so prosperous for Tennessee that this last decade really looks barren by comparison. The Vols failed to win an SEC title, although they got there three different times. Their record against nationally ranked foes really declined. They were just 18-29 and haven’t been to a BCS bowl since 1999. Losing seasons in 2005 and 2008 led to Phillip Fulmer’s ouster.

7. Arkansas: It really gets difficult to separate the teams in the bottom half of the league. The Hogs check in at No. 7 thanks to their two trips to the SEC championship game under Houston Nutt in 2002 and 2006. Winning the bowl game this season under Bobby Petrino also helps.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels closed the decade by winning nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in nearly 50 years. They also won the Cotton Bowl each of the past two years. The other thing that pushed Ole Miss past South Carolina was the 2003 season when Eli Manning and Co. tied for the Western Division crown. Naturally, Ole Miss fans try to forget the Ed Orgeron years (3-21 in the SEC).

9. South Carolina: The reality is that South Carolina has been consistently average during its entire history, and that held true last decade. The Gamecocks were able to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee under Steve Spurrier and had a couple of Outback Bowl wins under Lou Holtz. That’s about where it ends. In eight of the 10 seasons last decade, the Gamecocks finished with five or more losses.

10. Kentucky: After going back and forth between Kentucky and Mississippi State for the No. 10 spot, I went with the Wildcats based on their 6-4 head-to-head record against the Bulldogs. There wasn’t a lot of difference otherwise. Rich Brooks getting Kentucky to four straight bowls played a role, not to mention the fact that the Wildcats won three in a row in the postseason.

11. Mississippi State: It seems like forever ago that Jackie Sherrill was running the show in Starkville, but the Bulldogs did record a Top 25 finish on his watch in 2000. Sylvester Croom brought them a Liberty Bowl victory in 2007, and Dan Mullen spanked Ole Miss in the regular-season finale this past season. That was about the extent of the highlights, although Mississippi State fans are genuinely excited about the future under Mullen.

12. Vanderbilt: The program has certainly made strides under Bobby Johnson and his staff, but not enough strides to climb out of the No. 12 spot. This past season was a step back. It’s the first time the Commodores had gone winless in the league since Johnson’s first season as coach in 2002. The highlight of the decade was the seven-win season in 2008 and Music City Bowl victory over Boston College. The Commodores also beat Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee last decade.

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