UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography
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Few in the media know Southeastern Conference football better than the man known as Mr. Football, aka Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CBS Sports. And he's bullish on the prospects for Joker Phillips in his head coaching debut at the University of Kentucky.
"I think that there is no question that Coach Phillips has been waiting his time and doing very good work at the University of Kentucky," said Barnhart, who recently had a chance to visit with Phillips in Atlanta. "He is known for what he can do offensively. It has already been seen and I think that the bar has been set pretty high by Rich Brooks and (Joker) knows that.
"I think what he wants to do is build on what Rich Brooks started there and sort of take it to another level and put Kentucky in a position to compete for an SEC East championship. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about recruiting, quarterbacks, we talked about the offensive line. I think that Kentucky will be a very, very competitive team this fall. There are some concerns I have but I think long term, Joker will do very well there."
What are those "concerns?"
"The biggest concerns I have are on the offense," Barnhart told tomleachky.com. "There is a lot of work to do there. People will spend a lot of time talking about the quarterback but the quarterbacks will be fine. I am more concerned with Kentucky and how you replace a Micah Johnson, a great linebacker. How do you replace a Trevard Lindley that was, for my money, one of the best cover corners in college football? How do you get those kind of players? Kentucky needs what I call a difference maker. When they had (Andre) Woodson and those guys, those were difference makers and those are the guys they need to have."
If you're following the coverage of spring football, you'll notice that Barnhart's analysis is in step with a lot of what we're hearing. Mike Hartline has been solid at QB with Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski showing flashes of brilliance, too. But the concerns Phillips has mentioned most often are on the defensive side -- tackling, not getting off the field on third down, etc.
Barnhart has covered a lot of coaching transitions in the SEC and he says inheriting a successful program is a different challenge from coming in as the new guy who is going to make big changes.
"It is a completely different challenge," Barnhart said. "When you come in with a completely new guy, you want to do things in the opposite of what the other guys did. In the case of Kentucky, you are talking about four straight bowl games, talking about competing extremely well and being a tough out every week. What Joker Phillips has to do is say, 'OK, I was handed a really good football program and how can I make it better?' That is a tougher challenge and there have been tons of books written about the fact that getting from bad to good is a much easier process than getting from good to great. That is where Joker Phillips is.
"He has taken a good football team and has got to make it better and that is infinitely a more difficult challenge. The building blocks are in place, the infrastructure of the program. It's about going out and finding good players to come to Kentucky, who fit the profile of players that go to Kentucky and now you want better players. It is tougher to get, particular in this division and this conference. It is so good that you can build up to a certain level, but to get it to the Florida level or the Georgia level, it is a much bigger jump than going from the bottom to the middle part of the league."
And Barnhart knows doing that is easier said than done.
"We talked about what he would have to do in terms of that," Barnhart said of his conversation with Phillips. "There is no question that the Kentucky recruiting structure is good but they need to go into Louisville and win the state. To win the state means Louisville and oh, by the way, Charlie Strong is over in Louisville and is a good recruiter and has guys that are good recruiters, so it is going to be a challenge. Kentucky has established itself well enough that kids know about Kentucky. Kids have seen Kentucky go on the road and win games. They watched them win at Georgia. So, Kentucky has got, thanks to Rich Brooks and his staff, and the faith Mitch Barnhart had in him, Kentucky has a better product than it was in the early part of (the decade)."