September 1, 2011

Rick Minter Q&A, Part I

Rick Minter brings a ferocious new defense and a fresh attitude to the Kentucky football team in his first season as defensive coordinator. The old school coach with the new scheme everyone is talking about sat down with Cats Illustrated before the season began.

Do you remember the first time you met Joker Phillips?

Actually, I do. We were coaching at Cincinnati in '94, '95, '96. Bill Curry was terminated here at UK. You always heard this name, because it's a catchy name, Joker Phillips. I had never had met the guy. I actually did not know whether the guy was black or white. That doesn't mean anything, but I'm just saying I didn't know.

All of a sudden, I have the wide receiver job open. And Bill Curry, as I'm sure the gentleman he is, he was one of the guys when he got terminated who helped his coaches get relocated different places. Bill called me and highly recommended Joker to be on my staff if I had a position open. Sure enough, I did. We set up an interview.

He came up, I guess he drove up 90 miles away. I forget what time of the day it was, I'm sure it was in the morning. So here he is, sitting in the lobby in the waiting area outside my office. Then before you know it, boom, here comes the time, I go out and shake his hand, meet him for the first time. I had heard about him because he was a good, reputable guy. Good recruiter, a UK guy, a UK grad, all that stuff, but that was my first encounter. Of course, it didn't take long after I met the guy and interviewed him to hire him. I offered him an opportunity, it was a good fit for me, a good fit for him because of location. His fiancée at that time, now Leslie, his wife, so it was a good fit.

Could you tell early on that he wasn't going to be a position coach for his whole career?

Shoot, yeah. You can always tell. I've been fortunate enough to have been around a lot of good ones who have now since gone on and grown up in the profession and earned their stripes and earned their opportunities and he's no different. He was a cut above the coaches that I might have had on my staff at times up there. There's always a pecking order on how you get guys on your staff.

But he had great qualities, he was a good recruiter, he related well to the players, knew how to communicate, did his job, worked hard at it, was a good staff member, so he did his role well. But you knew, his background coming out of UK, that you wouldn't have him for very long. It would just be a matter of time.

I was kind of notorious at Cincinnati, known for a bunch of transition. But it was because of who I was hiring. I hired what I called from the top down. Somebody's misfortune was always my fortune. Here, Bill Curry gets terminated at UK, Joker Phillips becomes available, needs a job, may like to coach somewhere close to Lexington. So all that fit.

But I knew that it would be short term, whether it would be one, two, or three years. It turned out to be two. He came on board, coached my wide receivers the first year and we went to a bowl game, the first time in 47 years that UC had been to a bowl game. So we broke that drought. Then, lo and behold, Rex Ryan was on that staff at the same time. He was the defensive coordinator while Joker was on offense.

Rex left, ironically in early December or maybe late November even before we even got our bowl bid of '97. He took off and went to Oklahoma as a D-coordinator. So I had to promote from within on the staff. At that same time, I offered Coach Phillips the opportunity to move over and coach the corners because it was the secondary guy I elevated into the coordinator role. I said 'Can you do it?' because we were in a bind, we were short a coach. He says 'Heck yeah, I've always wanted to try and do it.' So he moves over, coaches the corners for a month in the bowl game with Kim Dameron, then our interim coordinator.

After we go out and whip up on Utah State and John L. Smith, I named the other guy the permanent coordinator and Joker said he'd like to stay on defense, because he thought it'd be great experience. So for the next year, '98, he coached the corners for me. Really the entire secondary, but specifically the corners.

Then after the next turnover year, he ends up going to Minnesota, then to Notre Dame, then South Carolina and back here. That's just one of those stories about catching a rising star at a good time in his career. I offered him the chance to enhance himself as a receiver coach and then a DB coach, and that may have him now look at the game in different eyes because he's looked at the game on defense and offense.

That's interesting. I've always known Joker spent one year coaching DBs, but never knew how that came about.

It was kind of a stroke of luck. A coincidence, but blessings come to us in disguises. I'm sure he would tell you that it was a blessing to have that one year where he had a chance to really see the game though the opposite sides of the ball. Now, as he goes back to coach receivers and that held him off until he became a coordinator and then a head coach.

He probably knew much more about coaching receivers after having coached the DBs, because it always works that ways. Skill coaches who can coach both positions are better coaches because they understand better what the other guy is trying to do.

What was the conversation like when Joker called you to talk about bringing you on as defensive coordinator?

I've probably had about 50 guys that have come from my coaching tree and gone on to do things and rose up the coaching ladder. Of those guys, what I really appreciate about Joker Phillips, as much as any of those guys, was his continued friendship of calling me one, two, three times a year to get advice, just to chat and keep our friendship going. Those types of things. So we always maintained a positive relationship and a good friendship. He followed my career. All of a sudden I'm terminated as a head coach, he's soon to be a head coach.

You never know when the cycle will reverse itself. I'm at Marshall for two years when he's head coach in waiting. I'm at Indiana State when he becomes the head coach. After one year, he made a decision to change and add something and/or change, however you want to interpret it.

I think he felt I was the guy that could come in here and help him perhaps in a number of ways. Number one, on defense. To run a tough, hardcore program where it helps the kids with toughness and play better run defense and all the things that go with that.

Maybe perhaps to help him also in his development and be an ear. Everybody needs a guy they can go shut the door and talk to every now and then. In my case, it's a friendship, not just an asking thing. It's maybe 'Hey, what do you think here?' of a circumstance, and all he does is get another opinion. That's all I've ever told him I would do is offer, if he asked, an opinion. I told him, if he doesn't ask, I'm not going to say because it's his turn to be the head guy.

So I'm a good soldier. I can work for anybody, I've worked for four guys since I was a head coach and while that certainly has been an adjustment to do, because any strong-minded guy will have an opinion, but I've accepted and learned through time to not offer an opinion if it's not asked for. That's not a negative statement at all. But when I was a head coach, there was a learning curve.

So I think our conversation (when he called to offer me the job) centered on getting involved in the defense in the bowl game because there was four or five weeks to get ready. Had the bowl game been an early bowl game, his timetable probably would have been different. But it was an opportunity to interject something new, get some energy going, then see how the bowl game would play out and go forward from that day. It was a good, positive conversation about an opportunity I was looking for and he was looking for me, so it was a good match.

Everyone has been trying to piece together what the defense looks like. I've been told it's not quite a 4-3 or a 3-4 or a 4-2-5, but a little of everything. What do you call it?

I think it's a hybrid 3-4, 4-3 defense, whichever term you want to adopt. It always depends on the style of offense we're facing. With different groupings on the field, maybe we need to get bigger because you're a little limited in who you have on the field in a hybrid 4-3, because you're really a 3-4 team but you don't live and die in the 3-4 because you still play 4-3 schemes within your package.

One of those outside backers and of course, in our case the rush backer, is a little bit more the fourth down player, he's the hybrid down player. The other outside backer is a little bit more hybrid safety. You can create a 4-3, you can create a 3-4 and you can create a 4-2-5 spacing because Winston has the ability as a Sam backer to be a nickel back type guy with his skills and his background.

So this particular version of the Kentucky defense, it's not too far off exactly what you'd like to have it even though we just got here in the first year. That is, the Sam backer needs to be more safety-like and the rush backer needs to be more defensive end-like. When we can't find or have those guys, we have to find ways to adjust, whether it's to put a DB on the field to play a true nickel or whether it's to put a big guy on the field to truly play a 4-3. We have adaptations of about everything you can do.

I've heard you talking about some of the coaches you've been around. You mentioned Rex Ryan today and you've talked about Monte Kiffin and Pete Carroll previously. Were any of those guys especially important as you developed your defense?

As far as what we do today, it's probably more Rex-influenced, more Jet-like. I really believe in life you're nothing but a culmination of your past experiences and associations. My foundation of coaching on defense really got formed by Monte Kiffin and Pete Carroll because that's when they came along in my life. I was young at the time, 24, 25, 26, 27. Forming my philosophy on how to coach was formed by Monte Kiffin and Pete Carroll.

By the time I was 30, I was on my own as a coordinator. Then, more and more developed my own packages as I went through time, partly based in more 4-3 than 3-4. Then becoming a head coach, I ran the defense part of the time at Cincinnati as my own package was there. A lot of times, like when Rex was there, we ran the Rex Ryan defense. I looked, listened, learned as any coach would do: what we did, how it worked.

As I got back into being a head coach, being a coordinator, I had to assess what my true values on defense, what my true philosophies and scheme desires were. When I went to South Carolina, I was still probably more 4-3. Then I went to Notre Dame for two years, probably more 4-3, a little bit of 3-4 but not much. When I went to Marshall, I really developed the package that we pretty much have today and it was because of associations, more Rex Ryan-like. We had the adaption of the abilities much like we had them here. We had a strong safety Sam body to play Sam, and we had an outside backer/rush end guy to play the rush backer. In fact, he's with the Ravens right now (Albert McClellan). Stepped into a situation where that personnel was formed based on who we had and what we could do.

So it's flexible enough that whatever we have, we can work with. We have a wish list of course of what we'd like to find. As time goes on, you get to recruit specifically. You keep in mind, I was at Marshall two years, Indiana State one year, now at Kentucky one. So the goal would be to stay somewhere long enough where you can truly recruit to the exact profile of the players you would aspire to have rather than come in somewhere and adapt everybody into it.

Right now, what probably makes us different than Georgia, who adopted a 3-4 defense, they're more of a 3-4, Parcells-like, Belichick-like. We're still a hybrid team, we're multiple. We play 4-3 and 3-4 schemes all the time. You may not have ideal 3-4 people to run your 3-4 defense because you're such a hybrid team.

So it was mostly gradual that you developed this defense, it wasn't all of a sudden?

Right.

It sounds like you might not be done tinkering with this defense. It's been an ongoing process to this point, do you think you might change it again in a couple years?

Everybody grows and evolves. We're going to do what we do best. I'm smart enough to know that you need to be able to do what your kids can do. But it's also important to have a defense that's adaptable and flexible enough to fit the ever-changing offenses and the schemes and the styles. As an example, this opener we're playing a big, bulky, hardcore running football team. So we may have to get bigger. But at the same time, they can spread you out and put smaller guys out there.

So we're always going to be adaptable. Overcome, adjust and adapt. That's my philosophy, whatever it takes. On a given play or a given day, if it takes different guys on the field to do different things, then so be it.

Part II of Cats Illustrated's exclusive interview with Rick Minter will be posted later today. Check back soon for Minter's take on how the new defense will impact recruiting and his expectations for this season.

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