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By LARRY VAUGHT
Maybe the threat of rain kept some potential participants away. Maybe the vacation season had others that would have liked to have been there out of town.
However, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t worry. He was too happy to see about 100 youngsters who did show up for his GAM3DAY READY clinic at Millennium Park here Monday to worry about anything else.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“These have been a lot of fun,Ã¢â‚¬Â said the first-year UK head coach, who has already done clinics in Hyden and Central City and has one scheduled in Louisville tonight. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It has been so much fun that we are going to add one in what I consider sacred grounds in Franklin, Ky., my hometown.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But it has been a joy because of how appreciative the people are in the towns we come into. When you say take one of these Operation Win bands, the kids light up. That means the world to me.Ã¢â‚¬Â
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the Kentuckian in Phillips. He canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t help himself when it comes to the Wildcats, much like former UK basketball coach Joe Hall, another Kentucky native, couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. Phillips may truly bleed blue, and when he gets a chance to share his vision about UK football with youngsters and their parents, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to do it.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is not about just football. This is about trying to create awareness in people to get out and do things and to be healthy and eat right. Also make sure they are doing what they need to do in the classroom,Ã¢â‚¬Â Phillips said.
Yet Phillips seem to be thoroughly enjoy himself as he watched youngsters Ã¢â‚¬â€ both boys and girls Ã¢â‚¬â€ test their skills in running, jumping and throwing much like athletes would at a college level combine. He went from station to station encouraging youngsters, and stopping to talk to many parents who wanted to just wish him good luck or say hello.
Phillips is one of the Big Blue. He grew up wanting to play for Kentucky just as youngsters like Jacob Tamme did. He went to Kentucky, had a successful career and started his coaching career there. When he came back to UK to work under then coach Rich Brooks, he believed the Wildcats could have a competitive program and helped Brooks lead the Cats to the promised land Ã¢â‚¬â€ four straight bowl bids.
HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s part of UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s marketing plan. Each camp participant got a T-shirt, water bottle jump rope and UK bag. They also got a chance to get the head coachÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s autograph or have a picture taken with him.
Not only was everything free, but UK athletics also left behind a $15,000 donation that will be used to install new playground equipment Ã¢â‚¬â€ with a Kentucky logo and plaque commemorating UK footballÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s generous donation.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This equipment may not last the rest of your lives, but it will last the rest of mine,Ã¢â‚¬Â Phillips told the youngsters. Ã¢â‚¬Å“My life will not last that long, especially if I am not winning games.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He was joking Ã¢â‚¬â€ sort of.
Phillips knows a 2-10 campaign would quickly end his Big Blue honeymoon. However, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s committed to taking this program to even greater heights and refuses to believe skeptics who say it canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be done.
Heck, he even refuses to listen to his own advice. Remember when he said as aÃ‚Â head coach he had to learn to say no. Yet here he is during his vacation time doing these clinics while all his assistant coaches are enjoying needed time off.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“There are a lot of things we need to do. We have said no to a lot of things, but these things we are doing we need to do to get our message out there about Operation Win,Ã¢â‚¬Â Phillips said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“That is what we are trying to do. We are trying to get our UK football brand and the Joker Phillips brand out there. Some things you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t say no to and this is one of those.Ã¢â‚¬Â
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s either the blessing, or curse, of being a native Kentuckian who may at times think more with his heart than his head when it comes to UK much like Hall always did when he took his team on barnstorming tours across the state Ã¢â‚¬â€ since outlawed by the NCAA Ã¢â‚¬â€ and always made his players available to speak.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t consider it a curse. It is a blessing for me to give back to the state I love. We want it to go the right way,Ã¢â‚¬Â Phillips said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is definitely a dream come true for me to give back to this state. If I was coaching in another state, it would probably be a little different on saying no. I want this community to embrace what is going on here because we feel that some good things are going on.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I came here (to Kentucky) in 1981 to try and change the perception about the university that African-Americans could not have success here and you couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t win here in football. We think we are changing those perceptions, especially with us having three African-American head coaches (Charlie Strong of Louisville and Willie Taggert of Western Kentucky) in this state now. If that can happen, why canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Kentucky win the SEC?Ã¢â‚¬Â