HOOVER, Ala. — He considers Kentucky coach Joker Phillips on the hot seat going into this year after posting a combined 11-14 mark his first two years as the Wildcats’ head coach, but former coach and longtime radio sports analyst Max Howell isn’t sure what the answer is for Phillips to succeed.
Howell was at the Southeastern Conference football media days doing his three-hour afternoon show with co-host Rachel Baribeau and spent time talking to coaches, players and media members. The Alabama native played at Troy State and coached future NFL star Emmitt Smith in high school before coaching at both Florida State and Mississippi.
“I think there are actually two coaches on the hot seat coming in, with Joker’s hotter than Derek Dooley (of Tennessee). But I do think Joker has a chance to survive,” said Howell. “The problem is that Kentucky found themselves not recruiting enough good players They have been close for the last three or four years, but not enough to be successful with everybody else jumping up.
“One that Kentucky is really going to have to watch is Vanderbilt with what (coach) James Franklin has done. They are going to compare what Vanderbilt does with what Kentucky does. Then on top of that, when you win a national championship in basketball, it puts a lot more pressure on the football program.”
Here are more comments Howell had about the Kentucky football program:
Question: Is it a sign that the Kentucky football program is improving that the coach can go 6-7, 5-7 and be on the hot seat?
Howell: “I think so. I really do. Part of that is that basketball is back. People who are sports fans really support both football and basketball at Kentucky. There is a misconception about Kentucky and people who have never been to Commonwealth Stadium don’t know you put 70,000 (fans) in there in the fall and they want to win. They really want to win. I think he needs to win six or seven games to keep his job.”
Question: Why does Kentucky have trouble sustaining a winning program?
Howell: “I think there are two things. One certainly is the strength of the basketball program because that’s where the national media attention goes. The other side is that with the high school football programs in the state, there are not enough good players every year. You have maybe eight to 10 come out each year, so Joker is going to have to go to Chicago or the east coast or down south to Florida to sustain the program. That’s the key, but it is hard when they find a kid who has a chance to play in the SEC that there are now 13 more teams in the SEC hunting the same kid. It’s just hard to find many kids who are good enough to really star in the SEC and want to come to Kentucky unless they are basketball players.”
Question: If there is any reason you could find to be optimistic about UK football could it be that they do have five verbal commitments out of Florida in the 2013 recruiting class?
Howell: “That is a positive. He is on the right track for doing that. The key is will they give him long enough. Can he go through another 5-7 season and survive it? I don’t know what the landscape would be as far as the administration is concerned, but I would pretty well know what the fan base thinks. They want to win.”
Question: When you look at Kentucky’s talent, do you see any reasons to believe UK can have a winning record?
Howell: “No. It is going to be hard. If they have an injury or two ... and that’s what happens when you don’t have enough depth in the last part of the season. If you don’t have a great strength program and enough talent, by the middle of the season you are going to be hurting when people go down. Not a permanent injury, but just miss a game here and there and you are left without somebody to run in behind that starter and be adequate for him and I think that is where Kentucky is right now.”
Question: Does Kentucky need something that makes its program different from other SEC programs?
Howell: “To me, I am into Florida, Chicago finding skilled players that can run. You can still get enough linemen to play, but to get the skilled players where you have enough is hard. I am not really sure that the spread formation would not go well there consistently. Going back to the traditional offense, Kentucky is going to have a hard time winning. Do more like what (former coach Hal) Mumme did when he spread the field. He loved fast break offense on grass and was very good at it.
“We have three teams — Mississippi, Missouri and Texas A&M — is going to do that. Kentucky would fit on the eastern side very well by doing that. Now we are seeing (South Carolina coach Steve) Spurrier going to a more traditional offense. Florida is going to a more traditional offense. I think if you spread them back out that Kentucky could find a niche.”
Question: What one question will you definitely ask Phillips at SEC media days?
Howell: “Here is the one thing I will ask. ‘Coach, what about the recruiting?’ That is where it all starts. Rarely do you read about the recruiting base that Kentucky has. Those of us who have been in the business a long time know what Kentucky faces. Where do you go? Have you been to Florida? What about Chicago? What about some inner city kids that you want to get them to escape poverty and bring them to Kentucky, which to me is one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. I just love that area. I would love to be there to tell the truth and like to recruit for him. I really would.”