Kentucky Football

John Clay: Is UK's succession plan still guaranteed to succeed?

Many fans point finger at joker after losses

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 30, 2009 

Can a head coach be on the hot seat before he's a head coach?

He can if he's Joker Phillips.

Such is the down side of the succession plan, that recent collegiate trend to address the pesky problem of recruits asking the dreaded retirement question of aging head coaches.

Florida State publicly appointed offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher its coach-in-waiting for the day Bobby Bowden finally settles into his rocking chair. (That hasn't worked out so well.)

Texas named defensive coordinator Will Muschamp the next Longhorns leader, though current coach Mack Brown shows no signs of turning over his Austin administration. (The eyes of Texas are in no hurry.)

Kentucky caught succession fever, too, back in 2007, when the offense was rolling and outside entities were inquiring if Phillips might be interested in packing up his schemes for greener pastures.

After all, with Andre Woodson, Rafael Little, Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme, among others, the Cats finished 24th nationally in total offense that season after a No. 31 ranking in that category in 2006.

So when Mitch Barnhart announced Phillips, a Franklin native, would assume the big office once Rich Brooks returned his rod and reel to Oregon, Brooks teared up, and Joker choked up, and the Kentucky football followers nodded agreement.

Two years later, those same heads are shaking. Or aching. Phillips has found himself in the line of fire after the Cats took a free-fall to No. 106 nationally in total offense last year, before improving slightly to No. 91 out of 200 FBS schools this season.

Some head-scratching red-zone play calls haven't helped, especially those at the end of losses to South Carolina, Mississippi State and Tennessee in which the team's best offensive weapon, Randall Cobb, didn't touch the ball on key plays.

To his detractors, Joker Phillips is now Choker Phillips. Or simply "The Joke."

Welcome to the head chair, even before you've officially taken the head chair.

Says here the succession plan was a solid move that is still solid. For a program suffering a crippling lack of continuity, the decision to promote from within was the right move two years ago, and it stays so today.

Saturday's loss not withstanding, UK's strides under Brooks have been concrete and continuous. No reason to blow up the blueprint now.

Besides, play-calling is overrated. With Woodson and Company, Phillips was a brainiac. With a true freshman quarterback and a lack of playmakers at receiver, Phillips is suddenly a bonehead. It's not the offensive coordinator, or head coach for offense, that has changed. It's his personnel.

You can argue that's part of Phillips' job, as well. There's no doubt that in two years the Cats haven't been able to replicate their previous performance. But there's also reason to see improvement ahead.

Next season, Morgan Newton will be a sophomore who started seven games as a true freshman in the nation's toughest conference. La'Rod King will be a sophomore. Cobb will be a junior. Derrick Locke will be a senior.

Whether Brooks will be back for his eighth season at UK, only the head coach knows.

But this we do know: The head coach-in-waiting is already feeling the heat.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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