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By LARRY VAUGHT
It seems like Joker Phillips has always been on the field at Commonwealth Stadium. Whether it was a player, assistant coach, offensive coordinator or head coach, he has been a constant with Kentucky football. Or he was until Kentucky suffered through a 2-10 season in 2012 that cost him his job.
Now he’s coming back to Commonwealth Stadium Saturday as receivers coach for No. 12 Florida and will be in Lexington trying to beat UK instead of trying to figure out ways to help the Wildcats win.
Most of Kentucky’s players were recruited when Phillips was head coach. Many felt partially responsible when he lost his job. Does that mean there could be some extra emotion from the UK players this week?
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t think that would give any extra motivation for us,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. “We ought to be pretty motivated as it is to prepare to play a very good football team.”
True. Kentucky has lost 26 straight times to the Gators. Phillips was even part of the last UK team to beat Florida.
So isn’t it likely that seeing Phillips Saturday could stir some extra emotion in the Wildcats?
“I wouldn’t think so. I wouldn’t think, no. I think most people around here have good feelings about coach Phillips and the work that he’s done at Kentucky,” Stoops said. “He’s a very good person and a good coach, so I don’t think that’ll have any bearing on the game.”
And it shouldn’t have any bearing on anything said to or about Phillips. No, he was not successful as a head coach. But he was part of some terrific teams as part of Rich Brooks’ staff. He was at UK when the Cats beat Georgia, South Carolina and even eventual national champion LSU back in 2007. He always went out of his way to sell the UK football program to fans and recruits. He was an easy choice for athletics director Mitch Barnhart to promote to head coach when Brooks resigned.
“I think we all loved coach Phillips and loved having him as our coach,” UK senior linebacker Avery Williamson said.
Apparently the Gators feel the same way — and have since Phillips arrived.
Florida coach Will Muschamp raved about the addition of Phillips during the SEC Media Days in July. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who broke his leg in last week’s win over Tennessee and is now out for the season, was a Phillips backer in July as well.
“He’s brought in a different mindset. He was a head coach so he’s definitely got a good track record. He brings in a known leadership. He was a huge hire for our staff,” Driskel said.
Nothing has changed about the way Muschamp feels about Phillips and, unlike Stoops, he anticipates his assistant coach will be a bit emotional for Saturday night’s game.
“Any time you spend a lot of time in a place, you have great memories,” Muschamp said Monday. “There’s no question he will be emotional about that. Any time you spend as much time as we spend and working hard for the university, you will be emotional. He has done an outstanding job. Three of our most productive players are receivers. He is developing young players. His production speaks for itself on the tape. The tape is your resume as a coach. He has been a really good addition to our staff.”
And Muschamp says having Phillips on staff is not a big advantage for the Gators against Kentucky.
“He will have a little bit of opinions on personnel, but schematically they are different,” the Florida coach said. “Sometimes that stuff (about knowing a team) can be overrated.”
So can emotion, but somehow I think Phillips will be extremely emotional about his return to the school he’s always professed he loved and the job he said was his “dream job” when he became UK’s head coach.