LEXINGTON — Senior cornerback Cartier Rice has no trouble describing new Kentucky secondary coach Mike Cassity, a former UK football player and wrestler who joined coach Joker Phillips staff during the offseason to replace Steve Brown.
“He is definitely one of those guys who wants the best for you. He is on us, but he is a great guy. He coaches us hard, but he looks out for us. He’s technical, but also very aggressive,” Rice said.
Cassity shared these insights on a variety of UK related matters during a recent interview with the Advocate:
Question: Over the course of over 40 years since you came to Kentucky as a player, has the perception of Kentucky football dramatically changed or not?
Cassity: “You look at going to five straight bowl games as progress, certainly. I have been away for 30 years, but as I was leaving you look at a 10-1 team (in 1977) and there have been eight-win seasons.
“Has there been a national championship in the last 40 years? No. But I have been around a bunch of programs that have all the pieces in place. We have all the pieces in place, so why not us? That’s my attitude.”
Question: Was that the same belief you had when you signed to play for Kentucky?
Cassity: “I think times have changed so much. Our facilities — and I have been part of 14 different programs — are as good as you need. I always tell players you are always going to find a stadium that is larger or a weight room that is bigger, but it is not about that. It is about the coaches.
“The one thing I will say about Joker is that he has assembled a staff of guys that want to be there. I have been arounds staffs where guys are always on the phone trying to find the next job. There are a bunch of good ball coaches right now at the University of Kentucky.”
Question: What was the perception of Kentucky football while you were at other schools, and was that different from what your perception would be now that you are back?
Cassity: “No. I go back to when coach (Bill) Curry and coach (Jerry) Claiborne and they got the indoor facility, the new dorms and the Nutter Center. It just keeps going and going. As I talked to prospects this winter, I told them they are not going to find a more exciting atmosphere than when you walk out of tunnel (at Commonwealth Stadium) at the University of Kentucky, and it has always been that way.
“I will say this, and that’s winning will take care of everything. The fans here are the same fans that support basketball, only magnified by three the numbers (for football). We have great fans.”
Question: Does it help in recruiting that you played at Kentucky?
Cassity: “I tell players I have (coached) in every conference except the Pac-10. I have been a coordinator in every conference except the Pac-10. When I had an opportunity to come back to the SEC, it was done. Fortunately, it was at the school I played at. Again, I know all the pieces are there. It is our job to put a great product on the field, and we will do that.”
Question: What are the best pieces the Kentucky football program has to work with?
Cassity: “I think it starts with the head coach and the staff. You just go down each coach and what he has done and where he has been and the ability to recruit. We have got a very good staff. So much of today’s football is staff chemistry.
“I think Joker has done a great job of assembling coaches that you don’t necessarily have to be yes men to each other. Everybody can state their opinion and then once you leave the room everybody is on the same page and nobody is second guessing anybody. I have seen that happen. The great programs, great staffs I have been part of it is everybody rowing in the same direction. I think that is where it starts.”
Question: When a team has a lot of young talent, can that talent and enthusiasm overcome a lack of experience in the SEC?
Cassity: “I am not going to step around that. I think there is no substitute for experience at all. But then again, you turn around and you had three freshmen and two sophomore starters win the national (basketball) championship (at Kentucky). I know they are great players and all those things, but I think it is mindset when you have a bunch of new guys. They are not used to the old way or whatever. This is the way. Their eyes are big and they are eager.
“I noticed that this spring. I was embraced by the players here. I didn’t have to feel my way around at all. I jumped right in and started coaching. Their are only two coaches that have been at the University of Kentucky longer than I have, and that’s Joker and (special teams/tight ends coach Greg) Nord.
“I tell players I was a two-sport letterman here (in football and wrestling). I don’t need to convince them of creditability. They know where I have been and who I have coached. It’s just a matter that I had to earn their respect, and hopefully I did that this spring.”
Question: Can a young team use low expectations such as there are for this team as motivation during the summer, or can that cause a young team to doubt itself?
Cassity: “I don’t think so. I think players follow the lead of their coaches. If coaches are positive and optimistic and on the upbeat, then players follow coaches. Everybody says you have to have great leadership on a team, and that’s true, but it starts with the coaching staff.
“It’s easy the first day of two-a-days to go out there with a lot of enthusiasm and energy, but day five, six or seven gets harder. But our staff will be the same way day seven as they were day one, because I have worked with a lot of them. I have more commonality with this staff than any staff I have been a part of.
“David Armstrong, our recruiting guy, played for me at Western (Kentucky). (Equipment manager Tom) Kalinowski was here when I was a player. (Linebackers coach) Chuck Smith played for me. Joker played for me. Nord did. (Offensive line coach Mike) Summers, (defensive coordinator Rick) Minter, all those guys are good. I know this, that there were a lot of people, friends, people that I played with and wrestled with and everything that welcomed me back. I am not going to disappoint them.”
Question: How important is June for recruiting with the emphasis placed on getting players to attend camp on campus?
Cassity: “We are in the middle of the evaluation process right now going out nationwide and looking at juniors. I think it is very important to target the right guys to recruit next year. You evaluate during spring football in Florida, Georgia, and that’s a tremendous advantage getting to watch those guys.
“Then as far as us studying film as a staff ... and that’s another thing that Joker really does. We sit in there and the offensive coaches watch the defensive players and the defensive coaches watch offensive players so we know what we are looking for. It’s easy if the running backs coach just takes all the running backs and ranks them, but we do not do it that way. We do it staff-wise, and that’s a real positive.
“It takes a little more time, but it is very thorough. It helps me knowing what our running backs coach and offensive line coach are looking for and helps them know what I am looking for in a cornerback and safety. Without stepping on anyone’s feelings, if one of the coaches is real proud about this defensive back I will say, ‘He doesn’t have quite the foot quickness. Watch his hips? Does he play basketball?’”
Question: Since Highlands quarterback Patrick Towles committed by this time last year and was the bellcow for the 2012 recruiting class, do you need more than the one verbal commitment you have now for 2013?
Cassity: “I think that is so overrated. Granted, there are some great players who commit early, and I think that is super. But near the end of recruiting (last year) we wished we had another couple of scholarships. Those players popped up that just land in your lap for whatever reasons. You look at two or three of the last guys we signed were as good as anybody. It is sad when you have to turn away some great players because you are full, and that has happened.”
Question: Since you have been on the other side of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, what is it like to start the season with that game?
Cassity: “I think it is one of the games in college football on Labor Day weekend, ESPN, Sunday. It doesn’t get any better than that. I know the importance that other school is placing on that game. Believe me, we are placing the exact same emphasis.
“I wasn’t on this side of the fence six years ago, but I was on the other side of the fence, and I think it has become a very big and pivotal game for both teams. Is it a season? No, but it is a very important game, and it goes a lot deeper than just the state pride. It is a national game. Louisville is a national program, we are a national program.”
Question: How much would winning that game help the team’s confidence this year?
Cassity: “Any time you win your first game it builds confidence, whether we are playing Louisville, Alabama, Eastern Michigan. It doesn’t matter. The first game is the first game.”
Question: Would this win help more, especially coming off a 5-7 season?
Cassity: “I think any time you win helps, but the one thing you have to be guarded about is that neither program, and I am not speaking for Joker or (Louisville coach) Charlie (Strong), would put all their eggs in one basket that this is our season. You can’t do that. Trust me, we know the importance of the game and they know the importance of the game.”
Question: How important is that game for football in the state of Kentucky?
Cassity: “I think the quality of football has risen every year in the state of Kentucky. I have seen it drastically different from when I played to where it is now. The coaching, the athletes, everything involved is just better, and the Kentucky-Louisville series has had a lot to do with that by drawing more attention to football.”