LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- The operative words in Mitch Barnhart's announcement that Joker Phillips is out as University of Kentucky football coach at the end of the season were these: "The search for a new head coach will begin immediately and will be managed internally."
Phillips was let go now, heading into a bye week with three weeks left in the season, for several reasons. Bringing a large number of disgruntled UK fans back into the fold was one of them, but the most important was to get a head start on what figures to be a competitive coaching carousel this offseason.
Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee all could be in the market for a new coach, meaning UK could be working against programs with more football resources in trying to find its next coach. The pool of candidates could include a list of seasoned SEC names, at least one controversial figure, and perhaps a few names that would bring a new feel to the program.
"I understand the challenge and significance of finding a new leader for our football program," Barnhart said in a statement released through UK's athletics website Sunday. "It will be done with great concern for our student-athletes, students of the University of Kentucky, the Big Blue Nation and the citizens of the Commonwealth. Kentucky Football needs to be and will be a championship contender in the SEC."
Sources around UK have said that the leadership is expected to give priority to candidates who already had been head coaches. A list of names that have been mentioned by sources close to the program, in no particular order:
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: The former Ole Miss coach is best known for recruiting Eli Manning to play at the school, taking the Rebels to an SEC West co-championship and winning the Cotton Bowl, then being fired after his only losing season. Since then, he's been an assistant coach at Notre Dame, undergone heart-bypass surgery, and been an offensive coordinator at Tennessee. He's currently in the middle of turning around the program at perennial ACC doormat Duke University, where the Blue Demons are bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 with a 6-4 record. Issues: There's some question whether Cutcliffe would leave his current spot for an perennial SEC also-ran.
BOBBY PETRINO: The most intriguing name among the candidates, sources close to Petrino say he would have interest if contacted. The former University of Louisville and Atlanta Falcons head coach was expected to have an SEC title contender at Arkansas this season, but his career was derailed when he suffered a motorcycle accident with a woman from the university who it later was revealed he'd been having an affair with. When school authorities found out he'd hired the woman to a university position, and had misled them about events surrounding the wreck, he was fired. He since has spent a great deal of time in Kentucky, where his daughter is a college student, and told ESPN in an interview that he'd welcome a chance to return to coaching, and that he has changed and grown as a person since the incident. Issues: They're obvious, but one is believed to be whether Petrino brings the kind of image that Barnhart would allow at UK, and another is whether Auburn or Tennessee might be ready to jump into the fray to get him.
BUTCH JONES: After the abrupt departure of Brian Kelley and heavy graduation losses, Jones has returned the Cincinnati program to a share of the Big East championship in just his second season, and has the Bearcats at 6-2 this season, with their customary high-powered offense and hard-nosed defense. Issues: Most of his coaching experience is in the central region of the country, and his lack of SEC experience and recruiting base could prove challenging.
PHIL FULMER: The former Tennessee coach has been involved in broadcasting since his firing at Tennessee in 2008, but has let it be known he'd be open to a return to coaching, including making inquiries over the University of Louisville position several years ago. Fulmer won a national title in 1998 and compiled a 152-52 record, including 8-7 in bowl games, in his 13 seasons in Knoxville. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this year. Issues: Fulmer turned 62 this year, but UK has had some success with an older head coach in its recent past.
SONNY DYKES: The former graduate assistant and tight ends coach at UK under Hal Mumme has impeccable offensive credentials. After leaving UK he was an assistant to Mike Leach, for whom he was a co-offensive coordinator with Dana Holgorsen, before coaching with Mike Stoops at Arizona. He's also the son of Spike Dykes, the all-time winningest coach in Texas Tech history. Now, Dykes is making a name for himself at Louisiana Tech, where replaced Derek Dooley in 2010 and won WAC coach of the year honors last season. He is 21-13 and is among the hot names for several positions expected to be open this season. Issues: Again, his primary experience has been outside the SEC, where the defenses and recruiting challenges are at another level.
DIRK KOETTER: While Chris Petersen is a perennial hot name in coaching, Koetter is the guy who got things going at Boise State, before going to Arizona State and being fired after six seasons. He spent five years as offensive coordinator in the NFL with Jacksonville and currently is with the Atlanta Falcons. Issues: Does he have recruiting contacts in the south? Bobby Petrino certainly built some serious inroads in Florida during his time in Jacksonville.
TOMMY TUBERVILLE: The former Auburn coach would seem to be a good "personality fit" with Barnhart and he's had success in the SEC, though his fortunes have gone downhill since leading Auburn to a 13-0 record without getting a shot at a national championship in 2004. Tuberville, who is in line to become president of the American Football Coaches Association next season, has been at Texas Tech since 2010 and has compiled a 19-14 record. Tuberville has won SEC coach of the year awards with two different teams (Ole Miss, Auburn) and has won five SEC West Division titles. Issues: Tuberville is a capable coach and has done fantastic charitable work off the field, and even appeared in the Oscar-winning movie "The Blind Side," but last left the SEC with a dissatisfied program, and the job at UK is arguably more difficult. As well, UK's Bill Curry experience could be a red flag.
FRANK SOLICH: The man Tom Osborne picked as his successor led his first six Nebraska teams to bowl games and has the experience of coaching in the national championship game -- albeit in a blowout loss to Miami in the Rose Bowl. Solich slumped to 7-7 in 2002 and then was fired after going 9-3 in 2003, with school officials citing his road record against ranked teams (1-9). He returned to coaching in 2005 at Ohio University, where he remains. He has gone 58-41 at Ohio, including two league championships in the past three years. Ohio U was 10-4 in 2011 and is 8-1 and in the top 25 of the BCS Ratings this season. Issues: Like with Fulmer, age could be a question. He's 68 years old.
MIKE LEACH: He was the hottest name in Lexington after UK failed to become bowl eligible last season, and even has said he'd be intrigued by a chance to return to Lexington. But in his first season at Washington State he's 2-7, and the talk seems to have died down considerably. Still, he's unconventional and a national personality who would likely immediately ignite the UK fan base. Issues: Just one year into a new job, it might be tough to sell another move.
KIRBY SMART: The Alabama defensive coordinator is viewed to be one of the hottest assistant coaching names in the country, and in 2009 won the Frank Broyles Award as the top assistant in the nation. Smart has followed Nick Saban from LSU to the NFL to Alabama, and last year Alabama made him the highest-paid assistant on Saban's staff, reinforcing the faith they have in his work with the Tide defense. Issues: A lack of head-coaching experience, and UK has shown a tendency to go with offensive-minded head coaches.
WILLIE TAGGART: The current head coach at Western Kentucky might not be perceived to be a serious candidate, mainly because he's at a smaller state school in Kentucky. That could well be a mistake. Taggart had the Hilltoppers receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll last month and has demonstrated an ability to lure some talent out of the state of Florida. He also has a strong coaching background, most of it under Jack and Jim Harbaugh. He was Jack's assistant head coach when WKU won the NCAA Division I-AA championship in 2002 and under Jim was the running backs coach who worked with Doak Walker Award winner Toby Gerhart. He has had WKU bowl eligible for the past two seasons, and beat UK in Commonwealth Stadium this season. Issues: A lack of experience as a BCS AQ head coach could hurt, as well as the (misplaced) perception that UK might be "above" considering a WKU coach.
Outside the box candidates
NEAL BROWN: The native of Danville, Ky., is recognized as one of the good, young offensive coordinators in the game. He's in his third season as offensive coordinator for Tuberville at Texas Tech, leading the Red Raiders to No. 15 national ranking in total offense his first season, and sixth nationally in passing offense. He got much of his offensive background coaching for Tony Franklin at Troy, and played for the Wildcats from 1998 to 2000. Issues: He's young, only 34, and has no head-coaching experience.
CHRIS PETERSEN: Everybody, it seems, has made a run at the Boise State coach, but what's to keep UK from heading north with a basket full of money and asking him, once again, "You sure you don't want to be a coach in the SEC?" Issues: So far, no one has lured him away, and would he have the ability to recruit in the SEC?
ROB RYAN: The Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator has some significant Kentucky ties. His dad, Buddy, is a Kentucky native and Rob spent a season as an assistant at WKU. The Ryan family poses some intriguing possibilities, should either of Buddy Ryan's well-known sons decide they want to pursue the college game. Issues: Would Rob listen? Might be worth asking.
CHARLIE STRONG: Highly unlikely that the Louisville coach would get a call, and even more unlikely that he'd take it. But if other SEC schools are going to be calling the former Florida and South Carolina assistant, should UK? Issues: Too many to count.