FRANKFORT — Charlie Strong was happy when he heard the news that Joker Phillips would take over for Rich Brooks as head football coach at the University of Kentucky, and Phillips had the same sentiment when Tom Jurich tabbed Strong to rebuild the program at the University of Louisville.
And both Phillips and Strong were glad to see young up-and-comer Willie Taggart get his shot as the head coach at Western Kentucky University in November.
The three coaches, who spoke to the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts on Monday as part of Black History Month, have history together and maintain good relationships. Phillips and Strong were on Lou Holtz's staff at South Carolina in 2002, and they have crossed paths many times on the Southeastern Conference circuit.
Taggart, a Florida native, was a longtime admirer of Strong while Strong was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida, and he got an up-close glimpse of Phillips while Taggart was a player and an assistant at Western.
"I watched how Joker recruited and heard people talk about him, and I told people 'I want to be like that,'" Taggart said. "I want people talking about me."
The state of Kentucky has become a trendsetter with regard to minority coaching hires. It's now the first state with three black coaches at Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Phillips, Strong and Taggart are among seven African-American coaches hired by Football Bowl Subdivision programs this off-season, which more than doubled the total to 13 heading into the 2013 season.
"It's a huge statement as to what our universities have done," Phillips said.
While the three coaches want to see each other do well, they know that the good vibes will have to be put aside when they compete head-to-head on the field and on the recruiting trail. The first game for Strong and Phillips as head coaches will be against each other when the Cards and Cats clash at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 4, and UK and Western kick off a four-game series between their schools starting the following week.
"You're a competitor; that's just how it goes," Taggart said. "The day we play each other, we're out to beat each other. Joker's going to try and beat my brains in, and we're going to try and do the same thing."
This won't be the first time Phillips and Strong have butted heads. They've matched wits for the past few seasons when Phillips was the offensive coordinator at UK and Strong was the defensive coordinator at Florida.
"Charlie and I have been doing this for years," Phillips said. "We're used to going up against each other."
But things are slightly different now. Strong and Phillips are in their program's driver's seat. Plus, UK and U of L are archrivals, and the fate of many of their predecessors rode on how much success they had in the rivalry.
Hal Mumme was the toast of Lexington after beating Louisville in his first two tries by a combined score of 106-58. But Mumme dropped the next two to U of L, and many pointed to 40-34 overtime loss to the Cards in the 2000 season opener as the beginning of the end for the Mumme era.
The legend of Bobby Petrino started in large part due to his mastery of Kentucky during his tenure at Louisville. Petrino beat the Cats four straight times, and those four losses to U of L helped put Rich Brooks on the hot seat.
But Brooks rebounded and turned things around at UK, and three straight wins over Louisville set the table for that renaissance and helped show Steve Kragthorpe, who took over at Louisville when Petrino bolted for the NFL, the door.
While the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has swallowed several coaches, Phillips and Strong insist that the series won't strain their relationship.
"We've talked about that," Phillips said. "We're going to keep it positive. Nothing will change. We'll compete one weekend a year, and from then on we'll be friends the rest of the year."
"We've built a relationship over the years, and one ball game isn't going to change that," Strong said. "It is a big-time rivalry game, but they're in the SEC and we're in the Big East. We go play that one game and then go play our schedule and they go play theirs."