John Clay: Phillips, Strong are friendly rivals

Coaches' recruiting battle is year-round

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 25, 2011 

UofL coach Charlie Strong, left, and UK coach Joker Phillips, posed with the Governors Cup trophy at the annual luncheon to promote the Governor's Cup football game between the Cats and Cards photographed on Thursday July 25, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

LOUISVILLE — Prior to the annual luncheon of the Jefferson County UK Alumni Club on Wednesday, Joker Phillips was waiting for a media session when he was introduced to a young man at the Galt House West.

The young man told the Kentucky football coach that he had grown up in Lexington so he really wasn't much of a Cards fan.

A Cards fan?

Phillips paused.

"I'm Joker," he said, relaying the story to a crowd, which upon realizing the joke burst into a mixture of laughter and applause.

"I guess he meant we all look alike," said Phillips as the laughter continued. "But I told him, 'I'll be sure and give Charlie the message.'"

Charlie Strong is the head football coach at Louisville and a good and longtime friend of Phillips, who, like Strong, happens to be an African-American.

Phillips then joked that usually when he's mistaken for Strong, "I usually say, 'Gosh Dang, I hate this town. I wish I was back in Florida. Good gracious.'"

All jokes aside, Phillips and Strong are about to start their second seasons as head football coaches in the Commonwealth. Both went 6-6 in the regular season last year. Louisville won its bowl game. Kentucky lost its bowl game.

But Kentucky won the regular-season matchup in Louisville. This year, the Sept. 17 game is in Lexington.

"One day a year, we put our friendship aside," said Phillips when he talked to the media. But really and truly they compete 365 days a year for the hearts and minds of recruits, especially in Louisville.

"We want to win the state of Kentucky in recruiting," said Phillips. "What's the biggest city in Kentucky? Louisville. So we want to win in the state of Kentucky and to do that you have to first take care of Louisville."

Phillips has been doing a good job of that. He has several key players from the River City.

Not that it will get easier, however. The dip Louisville took under Steve Kragthorpe is in the process of being corrected by Strong. The Cards figure to be young this season, but the fan base is optimistic about the future. And that's fine by Phillips.

"We will not let this game of football come between our relationship," Phillips said. "I really root for Charlie, other than the game that we play them. And I'm sure it's the same with him. Our relationship has not changed."

But what about when the two go head-to-head over a player?

"We don't really talk about their program," Phillips said. "We just try to sell Kentucky. We're very limited in how many opportunities you have in front of a recruit. So for me to spend time talking about somebody else's program that just takes away from the opportunity I have to talk about mine."

His talk to the alumni had much to do with championships, and how he doesn't want fans or alumni laughing when he speaks of such things.

"I'm not about bowl games," Phillips said. "They're nice, but I'm about competing for championships."

One Louisvillian who could be a key to that sort of "rise" is Ridge Wilson, the 6-foot-3, 243-pound junior from Louisville Central whom new defensive coordinator Rick Minter has moved from defensive end to a more of a hybrid end/linebacker spot.

"He had a little setback a couple of weeks ago when he had a bruise on his forearm, but he was back out there the next day," Phillips said. "Ridge is understanding how to play at a high, fast level. That's been the issue with Ridge. He's definitely talented enough. We just got to get Ridge to go hard and cut it loose ever play.

"When he does, he's a guy who could be a force to be reckoned with."

Now that's what Wednesday's crowd wants: A Louisvillian wreaking havoc for Kentucky. One that Charlie Strong did not get.

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. Check out his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/johnclayhl. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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