John Clay: UK's Phillips prepared for challenges ahead

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 7, 2010 

At Joker Phillips' introductory news conference Wednesday afternoon, the new Kentucky football coach was asked what lesson he learned from his former boss, Rich Brooks, the now former Kentucky football coach.

"Don't listen to the noise," Phillips said.

Easy to say.

Hard to do.

Rich Brooks did it. He got plenty of noise, the critics' noise, especially his first three years.

But the wise old coach was smart enough and secure enough to cover his ears, stick to his beliefs and carve out a solid, successful program where there had not been much of one before.

Can Phillips do likewise?

"I don't know that anybody is cut out to handle the noise, because the noise is painful," Brooks answered after the news conference. "But you can't let it affect your judgment. I think (Joker's) been around enough high-profile programs, he's seen a lot of criticism, he's experienced it as a coordinator."

Yes, he has.

The good news is that, thanks to his own hard work and Brooks' hard work, Phillips takes over a program that has been to four straight bowl games, one that just finished a season in which it won three SEC road games for the first time in 32 years.

The bad news is, Phillips won't get much of a honeymoon.

His advantage is that, as a native of Franklin, a former UK receiver, and a longtime assistant at his alma mater, Phillips knows the lay of the land. He knows the state, the university, the program, its fans.

But in a way, his disadvantage is that the fans know him, too.

And this year, anyway, many of the fans thought they knew better. They criticized his scheme. They criticized his choice of personnel. Most of all, they criticized his play-calling.

Never mind that two years ago, when Andre Woodson was throwing to Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme, and Rafael Little was slashing through holes, the Big Blue Nation was singing Phillips' praises.

Never mind that Phillips lost his starting quarterback the fifth game of the season, and played the rest of the year with a true freshman.

Never mind that play-calling is the single most overrated facet of today's football. Execution is what matters.

"We're in the world of second-guessers," Phillips said Wednesday.

And Kentucky football has entered the world of higher expectations. A mere seven-win season isn't quite good enough anymore. (Why can't you beat Tennessee?) Neither is a fourth consecutive bowl trip. (Why aren't you going to a better bowl?)

If Phillips goes 7-6 next season, the noisemakers will credit him with merely maintaining the status quo. If he goes 4-8 and 3-8 his first two seasons, as Brooks did, he won't be around for a third.

It says here that won't happen. The program is in too good shape, and Phillips is too good a coach. He has prepared for this moment, especially the past two years as coach-in-waiting, and the guess is he will do everything in his power to take advantage. He has what it takes — the youth, the experience, the aggressiveness — to move it forward.

But if Phillips won't be afforded much of a honeymoon, he should at least be afforded more than a pinch of patience. The job is different now, and in at least one way more difficult.

As hard as it was for Kentucky football to reach this spot on the SEC ladder, it will be twice as difficult (at least) to meet those expectations, to reach that next rung.

"I think it's easier to build it to the level we've got it than it is to take the next step and win the championship," Brooks said. "Because the people you've got to climb over on a consistent basis are the ones that have had that roost for a lot of years."

Then again, Joker Phillips has dreamed of this opportunity for a lot of years.

He's ready to make some noise of his own.

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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