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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.