- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Mitch Barnhart’s decision to dismiss Joker Phillips as Kentucky’s head coach probably didn’t surprise many around the SEC.
The Wildcats have stumbled through 2012 with a 1-9 record (0-7 in SEC play), will miss out on a bowl game for the second straight year and have won just 12 games during Phillips’ three-year tenure.
Kentucky’s athletic director has a very strong relationship with Phillips, but at the end of the day, the wins weren’t there and improvement wasn’t being made. Yes, injuries have crippled this team, but week in and week out, the Wildcats just weren’t getting any better and Barnhart had to make a change.
And Phillips knew it.
"We, as coaches, are measured on results," Phillips said in a statement. "We didn't get the results we had worked and hoped for, therefore change is needed.”
The fans knew it. They said everything by not saying much at all, as hardly anyone showed up for Kentucky’s 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Big Blue Nation clearly felt it deserved better than what it was seeing -- or not seeing -- inside Commonwealth Stadium.
It had to be tough to let go a man who has spent 22 years around this program as both a player and a coach, but Phillips’ 12-23 record wasn’t good enough. Phillips is a great individual, but being nice wasn't his job. Winning games was and he didn't do it enough. After making five straight bowl games, Kentucky won’t be playing in the postseason for the second straight season.
The Wildcats are currently 10th or worse in the SEC in all major offensive and defensive categories, including being last in total offense, scoring and rushing offense.
This might be a team littered with youth because of all of the injuries, but it wasn’t making positive strides. The Wildcats just weren’t getting any better as the weeks went on and that’s an indictment of coaching.
You have to wonder if players were buying in. It’s one thing to lose with youth, but it’s another to lose because of a lack of discipline and mental mistakes. Those happen when players are careless, and players get careless when they don’t have the right drive. Again, that goes back to coaching.
Recruiting has been a major issue as well. Kentucky isn’t a program that can afford to miss in recruiting. It doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing like Alabama, LSU, Florida and Georgia. It has to evaluate better and more thoroughly than the big boys.
That clearly hasn’t been happening and it shows in all the struggles Kentucky’s younger players have had this season and it’s obvious Kentucky has missed on a few players in its recent recruiting classes.
It hasn’t helped that Vanderbilt continues to trend up in the SEC under second-year coach James Franklin, who is 2-0 against Phillips. He’s also a win away from taking the Commodores to their second straight bowl game for the first time in school history. For Barnhart to see Franklin's immediate success has to eat at him.
Things have completely changed at Vanderbilt. There’s excitement around the program and the Commodores are no longer overlooked. Barnhart can't say any of that about Kentucky.
The 40-point thrashing Vandy handed the Wildcats showed how different the paths these two programs are on.
Now, the search for a new coach begins. A handful of names will be thrown out there in the coming weeks. Bobby Petrino’s name will likely come up, especially with his history at Louisville. But is Barnhart really prepared to deal with all that baggage?
Duke’s David Cutcliffe could have his name thrown into the bunch, and so could Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart. Both have had obvious success, especially with Cutcliffe getting Duke bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. Cutcliffe is no stranger to the SEC. He was a longtime assistant at Tennessee before taking over as Ole Miss’ head coach in 1998. He went 44-29 in six seasons in Oxford.
Taggart bested Phillips earlier this season with an overtime win in Lexington, but you have to wonder if he’s ready to take on a job in a big-time conference like the SEC.
If other jobs in the SEC open up, it’ll certainly complicate things for Barnhart, but this was change Kentucky needed and it’ll be important that he finds someone one who can coach, recruit and develop his way out of Kentucky’s current situation.
3dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf