Mark Story: For Joker Phillips, it's all about Tennessee

Coach's fortunes tied to border rival in a number of ways

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 22, 2011 

Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips watched his team fall to Tennessee 24-14 on Nov. 27 last season. UK has been beaten by the Volunteers 26 straight times. "I'm not going to talk about the streak," Phillips said Monday.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF FILE PHOTO

Across Joker Phillips' long association with Kentucky football, no opponent has been as significant in his career — in ways both good and bad — as Tennessee.

There has been good. As a UK player, Phillips did something rare for a post-Blanton Collier era Kentucky Wildcat. He played on multiple UK teams that beat the Vols.

It was Phillips' performance as a de facto "emergency offensive coordinator" in a game against Tennessee in 2004 that launched him on the arc to becoming UK's head coach.

There has been bad. In his days as head coach in waiting to Rich Brooks, it was Phillips' play-calling late in an excruciating 2009 loss to UT that, I believe, cost him much of the fan "buy-in" that has been so lacking during his two years as the Cats' head coach.

On Saturday, Phillips will have his second attempt as UK's head man to end what is an embarrassing 26-game Kentucky losing streak to the Rocky Toppers. A victory would provide a critical boost to a head coach whose public support has, to put it mildly, lagged during UK's 4-7 slog of a 2011.

"I'm not going to talk about the streak," Phillips said Monday. "The goal out there is to win our last game. That's why this is important to us."

Phillips was a true freshman wide receiver when Fran Curci's Cats beat the Vols 21-10 in what was both the 1981 season finale and the last contest Curci coached at UK before being fired.

Three years later, as a senior, Phillips was one of the stars when Kentucky went into Neyland Stadium and hung a 17-12 defeat on the Vols. That day, Phillips led UK in receptions (five) and had crucial catches on the drives that produced both UK's second touchdown and the late-game Joey Worley field goal that helped seal Kentucky's win.

The Cats have not beaten the Vols since.

In 2004, it was in Knoxville in the final game of the second year of Phillips' second stint as a Kentucky assistant coach that his career arc changed dramatically. After a season of listless offense, embattled UK offensive coordinator Ron Hudson resigned under pressure before the Cats faced Tennessee.

Phillips, then Kentucky's wide receivers coach, became UK's primary play-caller for the UT game. In the week before the contest, he moved an under-utilized redshirt freshman wide receiver — Jacob Tamme — to tight end. He installed a pass route for Tamme that Tennessee had not seen on film.

That play went for two touchdowns. A UK offense that had scored only 75 points in seven prior SEC games was far more productive in what became a 37-31 loss. Soon afterward, Brooks named Phillips full-time offensive coordinator.

Yet the wheel of fate turned against Phillips when Tennessee visited Commonwealth Stadium in 2009.

The Cats were trailing UT 24-21 late when they recovered a Tennessee fumble at the Vols' 37.

Phillips, as UK's "head coach of offense" and its play-caller, had star Randall Cobb run the ball from the Wildcat formation four-straight times. Cobb, an Alcoa, Tenn., product with a burning desire to beat the Vols, gained 27 yards to move the ball to the Vols' 10.

Yet facing second-and-7 from Tennessee's 10, UK went away from Cobb and ran a draw play to Derrick Locke (for 2 yards). On third-and-5 from the 8, Kentucky tried a called run with true freshman quarterback Morgan Newton around the right end.

It went for only 2 yards.

Kentucky settled for a tying field goal.

Tennessee won in overtime.

Walking down the Commonwealth Stadium ramps that night after the game, I'd never seen a crowd as angry as UK's was over the failure to run Cobb on those two final UK offensive plays of regulation.

That one game, in my view, robbed Phillips of any honeymoon once he inherited Kentucky's head coaching position.

Now, Tennessee is all that is left in what has been a difficult second season for Phillips as UK head man.

In a season filled with fan unrest, Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said on Oct. 14 that Phillips would "absolutely" be the UK head coach next season. Asked Monday at his weekly news conference if he had received any indication Barnhart's backing had changed, Phillips said "I don't have a clue. I'm focusing on this game."

Among other things, a Cats win would reinvigorate Phillips' hold on his job.

From the long view, there is something fitting about Joker Phillips facing a crucial moment against Tennessee. In a sense, it has ever been so.

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