Joker Phillips was fired as Kentucky’s head coach on Nov. 4. Mark Stoops was hired as his replacement on Nov. 27. In the three weeks in between, UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart was the target of more than 250 emails from interested parties from all walks of life offering, some more forcefully than others, the Wildcats’ leader their advice about how to fix the Big Blue football program.
Louisville Courier-Journal writer Kyle Tucker parsed through Barnhart’s email inbox during the most hectic of times in an athletic directors’ tenure.
Barnhart heard from the likes of search firms, a former Kentucky governor, the Black Coaches and Administrators, a self-proclaimed friend of Kliff Kingsbury and Kentucky fans. Lots and lots of Kentucky fans.
According to Tucker, Bobby Petrino was easily the most popular name to reach Barnhart’s inbox. He received 60 emails regarding Petrino, with only a dozen opposing hiring the embattled coach. None of the outpourings were more impassioned than one fan who urged Barnhart to hire Petrino because, according to the fan, it was “what Jesus would do.”
The other side, though less numerous, was equally forceful. “If you hire Bobby Petrino,” wrote one fan, “my family and I will NEVER attend another football game at Commonwealth Stadium.”
Petrino was hired as the head coach at Western Kentucky on Dec. 10.
Tucker noted that most of Barnhart’s emails went unanswered or received a token “thanks” response. That is, until Kliff Kingsbury’s name was brought up.
“Impressive,” Barnhart wrote to someone claiming to be close to Kingsbury. “Just getting started. Your letter gives me some insight into Kliff. May reach out to you to get a number for him.” Kingsbury was hired as Texas Tech’s head coach on Dec. 12.
Barnhart’s eventual hire, Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, was not on the radar for most of the impassioned fans reaching out to the UK athletics director. In fact, the first person to campaign for Stoops was a 13-year-old Kentucky fan who wrote to Barnhart on Oct. 21, two weeks before Phillips’ dismissal. “I have been to 78 straight UK home games,” wrote the teen. “Please don’t right (sic) me off, I know my stuff.”
In the end, it was former Kentucky Governor and longtime Wildcats supporter John Y. Brown, Jr., who initially favored targeting Butch Davis but praised the Stoops hiring, who best underscored the pressure Barnhart and his colleagues endure when the weight of their decisions emit this level of passion.
“I think having a great role model as coach and a winning program has more effect than who the governor is.”