By LARRY VAUGHT
During his 23 years at the University of Kentucky, Joker Phillips has always tried to do what was best for the program as a player, assistant coach and head coach. That’s why he says it was “hard” for him to decide to coach the final two games after he was fired Sunday with a 12-23 record in three years.
“I don’t want to be a distraction, I don’t. I’ve had my Senior Day. I don’t want an open casket. I don’t want to be somebody’s centerpiece. My grandmother-in-law, that’s one of the things she said and I get that now,” said Phillips.
Kentucky will host Samford Nov. 17 — the Cats have an open week — in the annual Senior Day game before closing the season at Tennessee Nov. 24.
“I want it to be about those seniors. Me and those guys, I’ve say in their homes and told them — this was one of my selling points — I wanted to watch them grow up. I don’t know how many coaches say that, I want to watch you grow up. I heard that from them and that’s the reason I want to be back (for the final two games), ‘Coach, you said you wanted to watch us grow up.’ That’s the reason why I’m doing it and the only reason,” Phillips said.
When athletics director Mitch Barnhart let Phillips know he was being released with two years left on his contract after Saturday’s 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt in front of an estimated 20,000 fans in Commonwealth Stadium, the coach was not surprised.
“I promise you when I walked out there in that stadium Saturday, that was enough for me. When you saw (that) it was enough for me. I understand it. We didn’t get the necessary results and I understand that. I’m very appreciative of Mitch. I’m not bitter by any means. I appreciate the opportunity. I got a chance to grow up here. I got a chance to get even stronger by coming back,” Phillips said.
After Kentucky’s 2007 season, Phillips’ name was mentioned for the head coaching spot at several schools but he chose to stay at Kentucky as the offensive coordinator as was named the “coach in waiting” behind Rich Broks.
“Our offense was as good as any in the country, as good as any we’ve had here. I got the job because of that so the excitement in ’07 was going to go down a little bit. It’s hard to keep it at that level,” Phillips said. “It goes down a little bit and by the time I got it the excitement had work off a little bit, I understand that. There will be excitement when the next guy comes in and there should be, rightfully so. It might have been better to go away and come back but that’s not how we’ve done this thing. I accept that.”
Phillips won’t quit being a Kentucky supporter, either, because he was fired.
“The thing I’d tell Big Blue Nation is I’m part of you. I will continue to buy my season tickets. I won’t buy as many but I’ll continue to buy my season tickets,” he said. “We all have a hand if we want this thing to succeed, we all do. It’s not moaning and groaning when we don’t get the results, when the next guy doesn’t get the results as fast as we want, it’s staying behind the players and coaches. Stand behind them. I’ll stand behind them. I’ll be rooting like heck for them.
“If you want to get the thing done, and from what I’ve seen the fans want to get it done, then stand behind this team. Show up in droves. You know how hard it is to recruit when there is nobody in (Commonwealth Stadium)? I’m talking about like 2006. There was nobody in there then. It was a hard sell to sell the 2007 class to come here. ‘Coach, nobody is coming.’ I know but we’re 8-5. That’s not the way you build a program. Everybody is involved in building a program, especially building a program here.
“You have to stay behind this team. You have to come out in droves. Support this team. You’re a part of getting kids here also. We all are. I’m a part of it. I’m trying to sell kids to come here today. This is a message that this can be a really good place but it’s going to take everybody. Everybody.”
Phillips says he “has no clue” about what he’ll do next season. “The thing I think is best is to step back, step away, let all the emotions die down and then figure things out,” he said.
He read comments by former Louisville and Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger in an interview with The Advocate-Messenger about what the UK football program needed to be successful. He took exception to those comments.
“This is different than any job you’ve ever worked at. It is. And I’m not just saying this one is. All of them, they’re all different. So what helped you have success at one school is not necessarily what’s going to help you have success at this school or that school,” Phillips said.
He said it’s impossible to predict how much success the team, which has had a bevvy of injuries this year, might have next year but that his goal was to make it to 2013 to reap the benefits of UK’s young talent.
“To be able to coach when Bud Dupree is a junior, when his class is juniors, we thought we’d have a chance to be good. And with (injured quarterback) Max Smith, we thought we’d have a chance to be good. But again, a lot of things, when new systems come in a lot of things change. These players might not fit the system of the next guy. They might have to get their own players in here. But again, give them time,” Phillips said.