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By LARRY VAUGHT

KNOXVILLE — Maybe it was only fitting that Joker Phillips’ final game as Kentucky’s coach was doomed by missed opportunities on offense and a way too porous defense.

Kentucky had a rare chance to beat Tennessee for consecutive years and send Phillips out a winner in his final game. Instead, the Cats fell behind early, stayed in the game, missed chances to take the lead and eventually lost 37-17 to the Vols, a team that fired coach Derek Dooley one week ago.

The Cats tried a little bit of everything — early onside kick, receiver reverses, receiver pass, screen pas — and had 412 yards of total offense. Problem was the defense kept getting burnt way too often. Tennessee scored on drives of 2:08, 1:35, 1:35, 2:02 and 2:12 and hit big play after big play while rolling up 457 yards despite having the ball just 25 minutes.

Kentucky went into Tennessee territory four straight times in the second and third quarter but got only 10 points. Twice the Cats had the ball inside the Tennessee 20-yard line — first down at the 14 and first down at the 10 — and had to settle for field goal attempts (one good, one missed). Instead of taking the lead, UK still trailed 20-17 midway of the third period and less than two minutes later the Vols hit a 29-yard touchdown pass for a 27-17 lead.
After that, UK never had a chance to come back and send Phillips out with a win. But the coach stayed classy to the bitter end.

“I am most appreciative of how the players handled the last three weeks,” said Phillips. “I did not want to be a distraction (by coaching). We have got good kids. We’ve had a lot of good teaching moments these last three weeks.”

Phillips said he had to “practice what I preach” and remain positive for the players after being fired. However, after a 2-10 finish this year and 13-24 mark in three years, he didn’t dispute the decision to fire him with two years left on his contract even if defensive coordinator Rick Minter bluntly said after the game that Phillips was not given enough time to succeed.

“It’s time to go. I understand that,” Phillips said. “I got 10 years at the place I grew up at. I got nine years the first time.”

He noted that UK went to four straight bowls under Rich Brooks when he was offensive coordinator and then another one his first year as head coach in 2010. Kentucky beat eventual national champion LSU, got a win over South Carolina and ended the losing streak to Tennessee last year. He even laughed as he said ESPN GameDay came to UK “for football, not basketball.”

He also pleaded with UK fans to be patient with the next coach.

“Give the guy a chance. This is Kentucky football. We are not getting guys that are going to the NFL after two years,” Phillips said. “I am not saying I did not get a chance. I did. Given a chance, this thing can be good.”

Now the speculation about who Kentucky’s next coach will be can really heat up. It looked like Cincinnati coach Butch Jones might be UK’s top target, but reports Saturday said he had taken his name out of consideration as several other coaches apparently did earlier in the week. Some insist there is still a mystery NFL coach on UK’s wish list. Many UK fans still hope former Louisville and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino will get a call, but that apparently is not going to happen.

But whoever the next coach is, he faces a difficult task. Kentucky has an even more difficult schedule next year that includes the addition of Alabama. There is no clear-cut starter at quarterback. The defense has major holes to fill.
Don’t forget that the fan base has to be convinced to come back to Commonwealth Stadium, too. The last two home games probably had less than 20,000 fans in the stands, something that recruits as well as potential coaches certainly will notice.

“We know we have to do a lot of things better next year,” linebacker Avery Williamson, who had seven tackles, said. “But we can. We have good players. We maybe just have to be even more committed and get in the film room and stuff more. You can’t be half in. We have to go all in.”

Williamson said he’s not worried about who the next coach might be.

“When we get a coach, that’s when I’ll pay attention,” he said. “Until then, there’s nothing I can do.”

Phillips isn’t worried about the players not giving the new coach and his staff a chance.

“We have good kids. They came here to compete and they will move on,” the Kentucky coach, who admitted he had already cleaned out  his office and will have no more official meetings with the team, said. “We have done things the right way. Sometimes that just takes longer, but we have done this the right way.

“A lot of things go into winning games in the SEC. There will be two new systems (under the two new coordinators. I said give the new coach time. I would be crazy to say he is set up to win. Give him time. He deserves time.”

That’s something Phillips no longer has at Kentucky now, but he left here Saturday with a smile on his face after hugging players and staff members. He walks away knowing he did his best.

“He’s the guy that sat at my dinner table and recruited me. I love him,” freshman quarterback Patrick Towles said. “We’re all going to miss him.”

Minter said Phillips will miss Kentucky more than he has let on or maybe even knows.

14 Responses to After missing chances to win, Phillips knows it “is time to go”

  • john l says:

    Whomever Mitch hires will be facing a huge task in building a winnable football program at Kentucky.The talent pool looks to be sorely lacking,and unless the new hire and his staff are miracle workers,will take at least three years to beat teams like UL,WKU,and Vandy.The program is just about as low as a program can get.
    A couple of things i am thankful for,no more Minter defenses,and hopefully a change in the offense withsolid playcalling,and the development of a legitimate running game and Max Smith or Towles developing into passing threats with receivers who can actually catch the ball.

    • Andy S says:

      Talent pool is not at all bad next season for the new coach coming in. We have 3 good Qbs in Smith, Whitlow and Towles. with WR’s we have Sweat, Legree, Collins and maybe Cunnigham. For the Rb’s we have Sanders, George, Mobley and Clemons and also full back DJ Warren. We have some talent on the O line with West, Miller, Toth, Watson and some young guys who have redshirted on the defensive side like Langston Newton, Chapman, Patrick Graffee. What we need is a good Coach and a good playbook to fit the playmaking abilities of these kids.

      • RJ says:

        I hate to disagree with you but here are some facts. We do not have a SEC caliber QB. The closest one to that level is Max Smith but not by much. There are only a couple of guys on the O line that could play for the the likes of Fla, et al and maybe two or three on defense. Probably wouldn’t start even at that.

        I went to the game today as it is only a few hours from my home near Charlotte and what I saw was a team ill prepared to play football. Most of the time they looked confused on defense and noneffective on offense. It’s almost as if none of these guys watched any film on the worst defensive team in the SEC (tenn). Absolutely no team speed. Defense played soft all day. I was really not impressed with Patrick Towles. Perhaps that’s result of UK player development but he didn’t light up the joint.

        The next coach will have a lot of work to do and unless he brings a lot of talent with him, and next year will not be much different than this one.

        • john4uk says:

          That has been the norm for UK football during the Joker tenur.And you are absolutely correct in your assessment of the talent on this team.
          I watched South Carolina take apart a good Clemson team with a backup quarterback.Something UK under Phillips never did.
          Some UK fans like to mention the youth on this team,apparently they failed to notice the youth on other SEC teams playing this year who were major contributors to winning programs.An example is the Texas A&M redshirt qb who is a leading candidate for the Heiseman .
          Evem Vandy has several young players,a third year coach ,and they are 8 and 4.

  • grant says:

    yes a new coach will need time no matter who it is, however i assume the new coach is not currently on the uk staff as a coach in waiting . in which you were coach phillips . you had an alleged edge because of the continuity factor , and look what happened , uk football stepped back in to familiar foot prints, mired in less than mediocrity – more like embarrassing . so yes give the new guy time, he certainly won’t have the advantages you had. and you had them.

  • UK 24 7 says:

    Larry if the coaching speculation is true, there is one simple solution. A complete overhaul of our football program starting with Mitch Barnhart is overdue. He is our voice. If he can’t sell our program, he should be replaced. If he won’t even talk to a coach like Petrino (who deserves another chance)he should be replaced. We have great facilities, location, academics and an insane fan base. If we are truly having trouble finding a head coach for our football program, there can only be one obstacle. Mitch Barnhart. He should be replaced.

  • RJ says:

    Well, there is a bright side. Relately speaking, the TN stadium was as populated at the KY Vandy game. When I walked into the stadium this afternoon the upper decks were completely empty and neither end zone had people in it. Tickets on the street were plentiful and cheap. Maybe KY and TN could pool their resources and come up with maybe one competitive team.

  • Ira says:

    Once again I knew it was time for Joker to go when he did that asinine onside kick in the first half. Not giving it to Patrick Towles on 4th and 1/4 of an inch on a sneek over the center. Finally splitting time between the true freshman QB’s. Why?? Whitlow has done just fine in both games.

    Actually not finally, once again getting beat by an assitant again just like in the Bowl game against Pitt. I can’t believe he got out coached by an OC or whatever again geez.

  • Mike says:

    Joker said the last 3 weeks gave him a lot of teachable moments. Unfortunately it didn’t show on the field today as it hasn’t shown all year. Good riddance Joker, you will not really be missed.

  • Texascat says:

    This situation is lower than I have seen it since I’ve been following UK football (1969 when John Ray was here). I wish I could see some cause optimism, but I do not. Fact is, we would have been at the bottom of ANY conference this year, not just the SEC. I’ve never seen attendance so low (aimed at the administration more than the players in my opinion). First string talent that can’t compete in the SEC for even a half. There is no where to go but up or sideways. Hopefully up, but it won’t happen soon.

    • larryvaught says:

      Texas Cat, think the talent was a little better than you think, but something just never clicked with coordinators and players. Do agree 100 percent that attendance was aimed at administration, not players and coaches. And that may not change next year. I am not convinced fans will roll back into Commonwealth

  • grant says:

    you know why the next coach is going to have a hard time here, because when he takes the reigns of this program he will have to play sec schools whose administrations have put football first. and that is a huge difference between uk and others in the conference.

  • Scooter says:

    Kicking around Joker Phillips is not the answer. Nor is kicking around Mitch Barnhart. If you are that disappointed in those kids, and those coaches then please feel free to get season ticket to Louisville. Go Cats!!!!

  • shinny says:

    I agree with you Grant. Thats why we need one or the other, a great defense or outstanding offense to build interest and begin to pack the stadium again. It will be very hard because of lack of support from the university to build both sides of the ball. Having said that I hope Barnhart hires a coach that is strong on one side or the other. It would be quicker to build on offense, more pieces are in place. The coach at San Jose is impressive
    on offensive. R.J> disagree on Max Smith is the real SEC qb if he can stay healthy. I for one am looking forward to turning the page!!!!!!!

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