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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips has a die-hard supporter in former UK All-American Derek Abney.
“Joker is doing a great job keeping the current program in tune with former players and he really does bleed blue. It’s a great move by him to keep former athletes and players part of the program,” Abney said.
Even if Kentucky does not have a winning season for the third straight year under Phillips, Abney believes he should keep his job. “I have thought about this some as a former player who played with Joker as my position coach,” Abney said. “I really feel he deserves another year barring some major problems happening.”
Abney’s reasoning involves what is best for the long-term UK program. His theory is that if a new coach would be hired if UK has a poor year and that new coach uses talent Phillips has recruited to have success, he would likely leave Kentucky for a higher profile job. Abney suggested that’s what could happen at Louisville if coach Charlie Strong has a big year with the Cardinals, something that seems likely after the way the Cards blasted UK 32-14 Sunday in the season-opening game for both teams.
“But if Joker starts winning, he’s going to stay and you have a better chance to have a dynasty, or a program that stays successful every year,” Abney said. “Barring either serious off the field stuff that Joker really does not allow, I feel unless the season gets really ugly with only one or two wins that he deserves another year. That would be a fourth year, and a defining year, for him.”
The season started ugly at Louisville with the Cats lacking any defense until Strong pulled starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater late in the third quarter after he had directed four scoring drives of 71 or more yards. Season ticket sales were already down dramatically, and Sunday’s loss won’t cause UK fans to flock to buy tickets for Saturday’s home opener with Kent State.
Do empty seats and lost revenue factor into the equation about keeping a coach?
“Between football and basketball, they carry the athletics program financially. Fewer season ticket sales are not a good thing. That’s a tough thing to answer,” Abney, an engineering major, said. “If UK has a poor year, I guarantee you ticket sales will go down even more. Do you bite the bullet and keep Joker or say we are moving forward with a new coach? I had not thought that much about that, but I still think he deserves a fourth year.
“I don’t think you could ever question coach Phillips’ character or integrity. My boss brought up Bobby Petrino, who wins but has some off-field issues. There a camp that says if you win, who cares. The other camp says if you struggle but then eventually win and you have a high character guy you are a lot better off.”
Abney will be in Lexington next weekend when UK hosts Western Kentucky because he’s being inducted into the Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame. That’s the same day UK’s 1996 national championship team will play an all-star team from coach John Calipari’s fantasy camp before an exhibition game matching UK players now in the NBA.
Abney sees no problem with having the basketball events on a home football day. “I think it is a great opportunity for fans to go to both events,” Abney, who will be recognized at the football game, said. “It will be a great day for UK athletics.”
Could be, but why not bring the Hall of Fame inductees to the NBA exhibition game and maybe let someone like Abney encourage the fans to come over to Commonwealth Stadium for the football game.
“It would be a great honor to do that. I hope fans tie the basketball in together with football and it will help the football guys, too,” Abney said. “I would absolutely be thrilled to do that at the basketball game.”
What about also having the former UK All-American as honorary captain at the football game and use him at midfield for the pregame coin toss?
“You keep coming up with ideas. I want to do anything I can to help Kentucky,” Abney said.