Mark Story: Joker's predecessors overcame similarly hot seats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 11, 2012 

At long last, The Long-Suffering Kentucky Football Fan may have had enough.

Late last month, the Herald-Leader's Jennifer Smith reported that 2012 UK football season ticket sales were running 27 percent down from 2011's final tally. Early last week, the University of Louisville announced (somewhat gleefully, I thought) that Kentucky had returned unsold 2,060 of the 5,500 tickets that UK had been allotted for the season opener against the Cardinals in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

This lack of enthusiasm in the marketplace, obviously, is not good news for third-year UK head coach Joker Phillips. As the venerable former Kentucky radio play-by-play man Cawood Ledford used to often say, losing games does not get coaches fired.

Empty seats do.

Yet before starting on the coaching obituary for Phillips at UK, a cautionary reminder: The Kentucky fan base was pretty much in the exact same position with both the UK head football coaches who immediately preceded Joker.

In both cases, the coaches proved the negativity wrong.

Guy Morriss was on a very hot seat in 2002. After Hal Mumme's UK program imploded amid a cheating scandal after the 2000 season, Kentucky wound up promoting Mumme's offensive line coach, Morriss, as "acting head coach" for 2001.

Many UK fans fumed that Morriss was little more than a place holder and that the football program was adrift. After Kentucky went 2-9 in the new coach's first season as head man, public opinion turned more gnarly when UK brought Morriss back for a second season.

Ticket sales felt the impact. Even though UK had upset No. 17 Louisville on the road the week before, only 59,213 turned out for the 2002 Kentucky home opener in Commonwealth Stadium (capacity of some 70,000) with UTEP.

Yet Morriss led the Cats to a feel-good 7-5 record in 2002. Rather than a place holder, Morriss became a coach so coveted by another BCS school, that he landed a hefty raise to become head man at Baylor.

Rich Brooks was on a scalding-hot seat in 2006. By that season, much of the Kentucky fan base had long since run out of patience with the grandfatherly Brooks.

The hiring of Brooks to replace Morriss had been met with wide-spread, initial skepticism (including by a sports columnist who looks remarkably like me). The old coach did nothing to help his cause when he went 4-8 in his first year (2003) with a team that had many prominent veterans back from the prior season's seven-win campaign.

Over the next two seasons, the drain on the UK talent level from the Mumme-era NCAA sanctions was felt in a big way. So by the start of the 2006 season, Brooks' overall record at Kentucky stood at 9-25.

At the turnstiles, Kentucky fans were saying "no mas." In 2006, UK's home attendance in seven home games never got above 62,120 for any game and was below 57,200 for four home contests.

Yet after a 49-0 pasting at LSU left Brooks' 2006 team with a 3-4 record, Kentucky did something wildly unexpected: It started winning. The Cats claimed victories in five of their final six games including a road win at Mississippi State, a home upset of Georgia and a bowl victory over Clemson.

Brooks went on to lead Kentucky to four straight winning seasons and four straight bowl games and retired after the 2009 season on his own terms.

Now, Phillips is very much on the hot seat in 2012.

His situation is not entirely analogous to that of Morriss or Brooks because Joker inherited UK football in the midst of the bowl streak, not in a situation of perceived adversity.

The rationale for elevating Phillips into the position of Top Cat from his role as assistant on Brooks' staff was that it was the best way to maintain recruiting continuity and allow Kentucky to take the proverbial "next step up."

With an 11-14 overall record after two years as head man, Joker has not so far achieved that next step.

Yet I'm not convinced the Kentucky program is in as bad a shape as much of the (formerly) paying public seems to think. The problem for Phillips, however, is it appears to me that UK is two seasons away from being a realistic contender for another winning season.

Can Joker cajole enough from his team this year to still be the head coach in place in 2013?

Still, in this pre-season of Kentucky football discontent, Phillips should draw some consolation from the recent past.

Things reached this same boiling point with the last two Kentucky head football coaches.

Each time, the coaches proved their doubters wrong.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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