Mark Story: To keep his job, should Joker have to win at least six games in 2012?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 27, 2012 

Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips spoke at the Governor's Cup luncheon at Cardinal Club in Simpsonville, Ky., on July 26, 2012. Pablo Alcala | Staff

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For a guy reputed to have a blow torch located figuratively beneath his chair, Joker Phillips was remarkably loose Monday at his initial weekly news conference of 2012.

While previewing what shapes up for the Kentucky coach as a crucial matchup Sunday with archrival Louisville, Phillips even performed a passable imitation of Lou Holtz, his old boss at South Carolina.

Assessing (as himself, not Holtz) what is at stake for Kentucky on Sunday in Louisville, Phillips said "the team that wins this thing comes out with momentum. We need the momentum."

The conventional wisdom is that Phillips needs at least six wins in 2012 to earn a another season as the head football coach at his alma mater. Since UK appears likely to be favored to win only three games on its 2012 schedule, that sounds daunting.

Yet bear with me and I'll explain why I think there is a viable scenario in which it would make sense to retain Phillips in 2013 even if Kentucky fails to become bowl eligible for a second-straight season. To do that, the powers that be at UK would have to be willing to stand against an Amazon River of fan negativity.

Before the 19th modern renewal of the Governor's Cup rivalry, Louisville fans don't have to talk down Kentucky's chances. A vocal segment of the UK fan base is handling that role with fervor.

Go on any UK football-oriented Internet message board or onto newspaper Web sites in the comments section beneath Wildcats football articles and the angry negativity is abundant.

My Herald-Leader colleague, Jennifer Smith, reported last week that UK football season ticket sales are down some 10,000 from last year.

Part of the problem for Phillips is that, in the context of UK football, he "bought high" when he got the head coaching job at Kentucky.

He inherited the position from his former boss Rich Brooks at a time when Kentucky had enjoyed four straight seasons of at least six regular-season wins, three of them seven-victory seasons.

That means that to be perceived as "taking the next step," Phillips needs to get Kentucky to eight regular-season victories.

At Alabama or Florida that might not sound like much of a bar to clear.

But Kentucky has won eight games in a regular football season exactly three times (1976, '77 and '84) since Bear Bryant left Lexington in 1953.

Fan-base psychology is a fascinating thing. For decades, UK football fans were stubbornly loyal, supporting the Kentucky program at a level that far exceeded the payback in wins they were receiving on their emotional investment.

Now, the negativity pendulum has swung drastically in the other direction — perhaps to an unfair degree.

Phillips is only 11-14 so far as Kentucky's head coach. He's 4-12 in the SEC. His team lost a winnable SEC road game to a bad Mississippi team in 2010 and let a younger Louisville squad come into Commonwealth Stadium in 2011 and snap UK's four-year winning streak over U of L.

Last year's three-game stretch in which UK got obliterated by Florida (48-10), LSU (35-7) and South Carolina (54-3) had a Curry-esque feel to it. Getting pushed all over Nashville by Vanderbilt in a 38-8 loss was also horrid.

Yet Joker as head coach also gave Kentucky its first-ever win over a Steve Spurrier-coached team (South Carolina in 2010) and ended the embarrassing 26-year losing skid against Tennessee (2011).

For producing two of the iconic victories in modern UK football history, Phillips has banked remarkably little good will with his school's fan base.

So now, entering his third season, does Phillips need at least six wins in 2012 to stay as UK head man? Should he?

Obviously, the more games a coach wins, the more secure their job. Yet what if Kentucky puts a team on the field in 2012 that is far more competitive against good teams than it was in 2011? What if Kentucky's young talent — those in the freshman and sophomore classes recruited after Phillips got "his guys" fully installed on his coaching staff — appears unusually promising?

Under that specific combination, there's a case to be made that keeping Phillips would give Kentucky its best chance to win in 2013 even if the final UK record is below 6-6 in 2012.

Of course, given the rampant fan negativity, Joker will make it a lot easier on himself and his bosses if UK shocks the state and wins seven games this year — starting with a victory Sunday at Louisville.

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

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