Wednesday, December 11, 2002

UK sets timeline to hire football coach

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart wants to have a new football coach in place by Christmas to replace Guy Morriss, who left the Wildcats for Baylor.

Morriss, 51, was in Waco, Texas, on Monday and returned to Kentucky. He was expected to be formally introduced as Baylor's coach today.

Barnhart told the Kentucky's Athletics Association board of directors Tuesday that he had a long list of possible replacements. He would not divulge names but said the vacancy wouldn't be a tough sell.

"The Kentucky job is a great job. It's in a great conference, and the fans, the traditions and the passion of this institution, it's good stuff," said Barnhart, who was hired in July. "There is interest. There are people calling, and that's encouraging."

Kevin Steele was fired as Baylor's coach on Nov. 3. He went 9-36 over four years and 1-31 in the Big 12. Morriss is a Texas native who played at TCU.

Barnhart gave Baylor permission to talk to Morriss on Friday, and school officials met with Morriss in Louisville on Saturday.

Barnhart remained confident, even after Baylor officials invited Morriss and his wife, Jackie, down for a visit.

"I said, 'Do what you need to do. Go take a look and come back and know that I still think we've still got the best spot for you,"' Barnhart said.

Morriss told Barnhart on Sunday night what Baylor was offering, and Barnhart and UK President Lee Todd scrambled to match the offer.

"We revisited our numbers, knowing the gap was fairly substantial," Barnhart said. "I put something on the table, and we were pretty firm in where we wanted to be. I didn't feel like we could go much beyond that."

Jackie Morriss said Tuesday that her husband turned Baylor down in the days before accepting the job in hopes that Kentucky would make a competitive offer.

"Four different times we turned down $4 million because we wanted Kentucky to make an offer to keep us here," Jackie Morriss told The Advocate-Messenger of Danville. "I don't want people to think that Guy was asking for a million dollars a year, because he wasn't. Money is not all that matters to us. We've had money and we've been without money. We've always made out. But Kentucky just never made a competitive offer."

Barnhart said Morriss told him he had signed a contract with Baylor before returning to Kentucky, where he resigned Monday night.

Todd said Morriss' lack of head coaching experience factored into Kentucky's decision not to sink further into a bidding war.

Morriss had never been a head coach when he took over Kentucky in February 2001 after Hal Mumme resigned under pressure. The Wildcats went 9-14 in two seasons under Morriss, although they went 7-5 this season.

"I would be willing to go more for a coach who's been a coach longer than two years, somebody who's won some championships, somebody with more of a proven track record," Todd said. "We offered Guy the opportunity to do a lot better than he did last year if he performed.

"I just couldn't see getting the base salary up to the numbers Baylor wanted."

To attract a top-tier candidate now, Barnhart said Kentucky must work to match the salaries of its football and men's basketball coaches.

Tubby Smith makes about $1.5 million per year, including incentives. Morriss was making $400,000 a year.

"We pay our basketball coach a fair sum," Barnhart said. "If we're trying to take our two revenue-producers and make them the best they can be, there's no reason the football coach shouldn't make the same amount of money our basketball coach is and provide the same kind of excellence."

Barnhart said he spent Monday night calling recruits and current Wildcats. He said he didn't resent Morriss for leaving only two months after offering him a contract extension that would have kept him in Lexington through the 2007 season.

"If you're in Guy's shoes, you've got to look at those kinds of things for your family," Barnhart said. "Those opportunities don't come along very often, and for him to have the opportunity to do that for his family, my hat's off to him. I wish him well."

Morriss eluded a pack of reporters after meeting with his players on Tuesday. In a statement the university issued later, Morriss said he felt his first public comments about the move should be Wednesday at Baylor.

"Obviously this was a very hard decision to make because we have so many close friends and ties to Kentucky," Morriss said in the statement. "I'd like to say thanks to the fans of Kentucky for their support and once again thanks to the players for their tremendous efforts."

After Morriss left the team meeting, Barnhart addressed the players.

"We were kind of 'glass half-empty' for the first part of the meeting, then when Mr. Barnhart was talking, it was half-full," said kick returner Derek Abney, who will be a senior in 2003. "I have the utmost confidence that he will get the best coach possible."

Barnhart said he'll welcome input from the players on Morriss' successor, but will make much of the final decision on his own.

He wouldn't rule out offering the next coach significantly more money than Morriss made.

"A lot of it depends on the pool of people who rise to the top. We can do the things necessary to attract a quality candidate. We have resources in place," Barnhart said. "Our fiduciary responsibility I have to the athletic department is an important one; the responsibility to the team is an important one.

"Finding that balance - to make sure we have the best coach at the right price - is important to me."

Kentucky football sports information director Tony Neely said Morriss has invited nine of his assistants to join him at Baylor. Many of them have ties to Texas.

Defensive coordinator John Goodner and offensive line coach Chris Lancaster have both previously coached at Baylor; defensive line coach Tom Adams had stints at Rice, Sam Houston State and SMU before coming to Kentucky; and secondary coach Larry Hoefer coached high school football in Texas in the 1970s.

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