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By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s time to quit referring to Kentucky coach Joker Phillips as a great guy or someone who has spent multiple years of his life at UK as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
It’s time to quit referring to Kentucky’s young roster even though the Wildcats are playing more true freshmen than almost every team in the country.
Instead, it’s time to face the obvious — something just has not clicked in Phillips’ three years as head coach and the Wildcat have to make a change, especially after the embarrassing 49-7 loss at Arkansas Saturday. The score would have been worse if the game had not been stopped midway of the third quarter when a second lightning storm hit after a one-hour delay in the first half and this week’s game with Georgia could be just as one-sided since the Bulldogs opened as a 27-point favorite even with the game in Lexington.
How bad was it at Arkansas? The Razorbacks outgained UK 533-170 in total yards and had 300 yards and a 28-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. It was 42-0 at halftime. Remember this is the same Arkansas team that lost its first two Southeastern Conference games by a combined 110-10 and seemed totally in disarray after the off-field behavior that led to Bobby Petrino losing his coaching job a few months ago.
Arkansas held UK to 66 rushing yards on 25 attempts and quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Morgan Newton were a combined 4-for-15 passing for 104 yards.
Phillips finished his first season as head coach with a 6-7 mark and lackluster loss to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. He was 5-7 last year despite ending the season with a win over Tennessee and is 1-6 this season. That’ 12-20 as a head coach. He’s 0-3 against Mississippi State, has lost the two years to Louisville and lost to Western Kentucky this year. The Wildcats also got embarrassed by Vanderbilt last season. They failed to score at Florida this year.
To make matters worse, fans are staying away from Commonwealth Stadium. Season ticket sales have dropped dramatically two years in a row as UK has struggled to have any kind of consistent offensive firepower to entertain fans. In fact, the Cats have now gone 19 games without the offense scoring a touchdown in the first quarter.
While the players continue to say all the right things about supporting Phillips — no reason to expect they would say anything else publicly — it seems obvious something is very, very wrong. Fundamentals are lacking. The best playmakers are not getting enough opportunities to make plays. Players and fans are frustrated. And so are many parents of players who wish they could say more but know that would accomplish nothing at this point.
What’s the solution?
That’s not easy but the obvious first step has to be admitting Phillips has not gotten the job done the way UK expected or the way he expected. He knows this is a business and would be the first to admit that.
Of course, he’s not the first coach to have trouble winning at UK and likely won’t be the last unless there is a greater overall commitment to football by the administration. But that’s another story.
Today UK needs to already have names in mind to be the next head coach. One that keeps surfacing is Bobby Petrino. He bailed out on Louisville to coach the Atlanta Falcons and then bailed on the Falcons to go to Arkansas where he got himself into trouble with an extramarital affair. However, he does do one thing — win.
Petrino has made it clear he wants another chance to prove he can not only win, but do things the right way. He’ll get that, too. Auburn and Tennessee could well be looking for new coaches next year. Texas likely will be. Like him or not, schools are going to court Petrino.
If UK has any interest, now is the time to make it known to him. Don’t wait. If Petrino has a choice of Kentucky, Auburn or Tennessee in December, there’s little chance he’ll pick Kentucky. Today, though, if he gets a UK offer, he just might take it.
Don’t like Petrino? Then Kentucky has to decide whether it wants to spend huge money and hope to land a big-name, successful coach — something that could be hard for someone who is winning where he is now — or do its homework well enough to land a rising star who would come to UK determined to win to then move on to another job. Nothing wrong with that. It sure beats having a coach at Kentucky that no one else wants because he’s not won enough games.
Hopefully UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart will find one or two people to help him with the coaching search like he did when former UK basketball standout Mike Pratt helped land Calipari. Get someone with football savvy who can offer advice on whether to seek someone with NFL ties or an established head coach or coordinator in the college ranks.
There’s no sure-fire method that will work, but the one given is that what is going on now isn’t working. Young talent or not, the lopsided loss at Arkansas had to seal Phillips’ fate because keeping him would be financial suicide for the football program and maybe career suicide for Barnhart. Fans want a change and maybe the players do, too, based on how they played at Arkansas.