Mitch Barnhart's statement announcing the firing of Joker Phillips is remarkably short on the specifics about what Kentucky will be looking for in its next head coach. Perhaps that's best, because almost anything Barnhart says is likely to either be seen as hinting at the next head coach or is likely to spark a revolt among some members of a badly divided fan base.
Truthfully, I'm not sure in which direction Kentucky wants to go at this point. Do you take an offensive guy to fix the unworkable mess on that side of the ball, or a defensive guy on the often-correct "pendulum swing" theory that the next coach is always the opposite of the guy you just fired? A BCS coordinator or a mid-major head coach, given that Kentucky is not the kind of job that can draw many BCS head coaches?
Here are a few names that are floating around or might in the next few weeks. But whoever is hired will have to be in line with Mitch Barnhart's expectations for the next head coach, and he's currently not sharing that most important criteria.
Willie Taggart. This is likely the first name on just about any casual observer's list, though there's no real indication yet whether the name appears on Mitch Barnhart's list in any order. Taggart is young at 36, but he's already making a lot of noise as the coach at Western Kentucky University. He comes from a solid coaching tree. Taggart was running backs coach at Stanford for three years under Jim Harbaugh, and you might remember one of the guys that Taggart coached out west -- name of Toby Gerhart. As a head coach, Taggart is 13-4 in his last 17 games after a rough beginning, and he could guide Western Kentucky to its first bowl game since the program joined the FBS in 2008. But whether Taggart is in any hurry to leave WKU is another question entirely; he's one of the greatest Hilltopper quarterbacks of all time and has spent all but three of his 14 seasons as a coach at his alma mater.
Dirk Koetter. There is no reason I can think to ever type those words in connection with a college football program again, but there they are. Pat Forde, who spent a long time in Kentucky before heading to ESPN and now Yahoo!, reports that the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator is on the list of candidates for the Wildcats job. Which, as a fan of a fellow SEC East team, I say go right ahead. Even with the nicer climate and other recruiting draws of Tempe, Koetter went 40-34 at Arizona State in his previous BCS head coaching stint, was 21-28 in the Pac-12 (never finishing higher than third in the conference) and finished the year ranked once in six seasons. Translate that record to Lexington, where the program is even less of a traditional powerhouse and the recruiting challenges even tougher than they were at Arizona State, and it's hard to see Koetter having much success at Kentucky.
Sonny Dykes. This is another candidate that Forde brings up, and the Louisiana Tech head coach is bound to surface in connection with more than one job after leading the Bulldogs to an 8-1 record and toward what would be the last WAC football championship. But therein lies the problem -- with the exception of Tennessee, which has been down that road before, it's likely that most of the programs who are looking for a new head coach are going to at least kick the tires on the Louisiana Tech head coach. He did spend a couple of seasons (1997 and 1999) as a graduate assistant and position coach at Kentucky in the late 1990s, and coached for the 1999 Music City Bowl team, so the idea of Dykes going to Lexington is not totally absurd. But he spent most of his time to the south and west of the state of Kentucky, and was a baseball player in Lubbock from 1989-93 and then football assistant at Texas Tech for seven seasons starting in 2000. If things continue to go south for Tommy Tuberville this year, Dykes could be in line to get the job at his alma mater.
Brent Pease. Huh? Offensive coordinator who shows mediocre results in the SEC. When was the last time Kentucky lined up someone like that to be head coach? Pease, 48, is probably going to get his turn as a head coach soon enough, particularly if he gets things straightened out in Gainesville. (Admittedly, a multi-year project after the mess Urban Meyer and Charlie Weis left behind.) But aside from Koetter, this might be the most puzzling name on Forde's list.
Neal Brown. Here's your sleeper pick, if you count a name that I've already seen come up in a couple of places as a sleeper pick. He's the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and was a player at Kentucky before transferring to UMass. The concerns are that he's still relatively young and kind of fits into the same on-paper profile that Joker Phillips does: Offensive coordinator, former Kentucky player. Programs tend to go in the other direction when they hire a new coach, and I'm not sure that Brown isn't just a bit too close to Phillips to get the job this time.
Kliff Kingsbury. Here's a name that's been bouncing around a bit. Kingsbury is young -- 33 -- and has no apparent ties to Kentucky. But the concerns that the Texas A&M offense wouldn't work in the SEC have been annihilated by the Aggies' first season in the conference. Kingsbury would need time, though; one strike against Kevin Sumlin's offense is that it appears to take the right quarterback for it to really gel, meaning that it could be a couple of years before Kingsbury has the talent he needs.
Bobby Petrino. No. Just no. Stop it. Kentucky is not the sort of program that takes wild risks with its football hires, and the lawyers in the Kentucky administration would stage a sit-in if the Wildcats even started negotiations with Petrino. If Bobby Petrino ever gets another job in major college football -- and we have seriously questioned whether that's even possible -- he's going to have to wait a few years.
Kirby Smart. This is an SEC job, so we're contractually obligated to float his name. But, again, this is a guy with much better options should he choose to wait for them.
Gus Malzahn. An intriguing name that might get bandied about a bit. Malzahn's stock probably fell because of the bizarre circumstances of his departure from Auburn, but Arkansas State has won four straight and is currently 6-3, so it's not totally out there in terms of accomplishments. He might wait to see what other jobs come open this year and whether the Arkansas or Auburn administrations want to give him a call.
Mario Cristobal. Now we're getting kind of tenuous, but Cristobal is the kind of coach that Kentucky might be able to get now if they want him. Cristobal took FIU to back-to-back bowl seasons and stayed with the Golden Panthers. He's 2-8 this year, but four of his losses are by a touchdown or less, and the smart money is on a rebound relatively quickly. Still, it's very unlikely that Kentucky gives him a call; going from a coach who's likely to end the year 2-10 to a coach who's likely to end the year no better than 3-9 is not a recipe for an athletics director who wants to keep his job. I mostly included this out of the hopes that we can use a Super Mario headline.