|UK coach Joker Phillips|
By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — The numbers against Joker Phillips keeping his coaching job at Kentucky are staggering — and Saturday’s 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt here certainly did not help.
That dropped UK’s record to 1-9 and was the team’s eighth straight loss. It meant UK has been outscored 78-8 the last two years by Vanderbilt. Kentucky has now lost 13 of its last 15 Southeastern Conference games and the average margin of defeat has been 26.9 points per game. Phillips is also just 12-25 since taking over a program from Rich Brooks that had been to four straight bowl games.
Worse yet, fans are staying away in record numbers. Attendance was announced at 44,902 but that more likely was empty seats than fans in the stands. That number was based on tickets sold and included anyone also working at the game. Actual attendance might have been less than 25,000.
“I get this business. I get the criticism,” said Phillips. “Nobody in this program wants this place to have success more than me. I understand this is a business that is based on results and we have not got results.”
He even acknowledged that he is “making it real tough on him” when asked about UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart obviously trying to find a way to keep his head coach for a fourth season. He again cited being “depleted” in the junior and senior classes — but remember Phillips was on the UK staff that brought the juniors and seniors into the program before he was head coach — and that Kentucky would win “when you have veterans at the top.”
Phillips’ postgame press conference was dominated by questions about his future rather than his team’s play. But that had to be expected.
Vanderbilt scored touchdowns on its first two possessions and had five touchdown drives of 59 or more yards on its first six series to take a 34-0 lead early in period three. Vanderbilt eventually won a SEC game by its largest margin since 1948 and got its first SEC shutout since a 6-0 win over UK in 1968.
Kentucky had just 260 yards of total offense and what scoring chances it had, it could not convert. The Cats were sloppy on special teams with five major mistakes and other than linebacker Avery Wiliamson (11 solo stops, nine assists, one forced fumble) way too lax on defense. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders got so flustered with freshman quarterback Patrick Towles (8-for-23, 93 yards, one sack) that he walked away from him several times on the sideline rather than talk to him after the Cats were stopped.
So does Phillips thinks he even deserves another year even though he has two years left on his contract?
“That’s not for me to decide, but we’ve tried to do this thing the right way. We’ve got to come up with ways of keeping our kids in our program. We’ve put together some things that allowed us to do that. There’s a lot that’s helped us to do that,” Phillips said. “Again, we have a lot of young kids in this program, but that’s not for me to decide.
“The other thing, our last 12 (SEC) games, we’ve played a true freshmen at quarterback. There’s no excuse. These are facts. I’m not making excuses. I’m giving you facts.”
So would he like to be back considering the team’s record, low attendance and overall negativity about the program?
“I’d love to. No doubt I would love to. It’s not for me to decide. I understand Mitch’s position and the things that go into,” Phillips said. “We’ve got some good young kids here that are hurting worse than any guy that is associated with this program. I’m talking about fans also. Those kids are hurting. They’re hurting badly by the way we performed today.”
Phillips emphasized he did not want kids “to shoulder things coming at me” and that he wanted his players to continue to do the right things academically and socially, which he says they have been doing. He also said if Barnhart had reached a decision about his future, it would be announced.
“If there was a decision either way, I would think it would be important for me or Mitch to come out and make a decision, either way. Help get another guy or help us in recruiting. So, we have not talked. Again, it will be evaluated at the end of the season. That’s all I know about it,” Phillips said.
If Barnhart doesn’t announce, he’s doing a disservice to the team, players and even Phillips and his staff. This team played like a team that had lost all hope for the most part. Not sure the coaches were not the same way. And obviously even many of the most die-hard fans have bailed on the team. It’s a lethal combination and one that won’t get better during a bye week or with the remaining games against Samford and Tennessee.
“There are some hurt young men in there right now. They are definitely not proud of the way we performed today. It was not a very good performance by us,” Phillips said. “What is kind of hurtful is how we played two weeks ago (in a loss to Georgia) and we haven’t gotten to that level the last couple of weeks.”
No, and that’s what it would have taken to save Phillips’ job. No way Kentucky can keep a coach that has lost by a combined score of 78-8 to Vanderbilt the last two years. This is Vandy, not Alabama. This is Vandy, not Florida or LSU. This is the same Vandy that lost 48-3 to Georgia, a team Kentucky had a chance to beat before losing 29-24 two weeks ago.
Towles said the players “love” Phillips and want to win for the coaching staff as well as each other and the fans.
“We are trying as hard as we can to put positive stuff up there, but we just aren’t doing that right now,” Towles said.
Not even close.
So what does Phillips’ gut tell him might happen with his job status in the next few days or weeks?
“My gut was that we’d win this game today, okay? That’s where my gut was. You can’t go on your gut,” Phillips said.
He’s right. Instead, you go on wins, overall play and attendance and that has to make this decision painfully obvious to everyone.