John Clay: Can Joker end UK tailspin before it's too late?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 16, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

The spiral started with the BBVA Compass Bowl back in 2010, that 27-10 loss to a Pittsburgh team that had fired its head coach not a month before.

Last year, there was the 54-3 loss at South Carolina in which Kentucky managed all of 96 yards.

Then there was the 38-8 loss at Vanderbilt, of all places, UK's worst loss to the Commodores since 1969.

Now add Saturday night to the list.

Never mind that Western Kentucky has made great strides since becoming a FBS team, that the Hilltoppers have now won nine of their last 11 games, the two losses coming to Alabama and LSU. Never mind that UK opened as just a 51/2-point favorite over its in-state rival from Bowling Green.

For a Southeastern Conference football program, for a Kentucky program that had been to five consecutive bowl games before last season, a second loss to an in-state school in three weeks is difficult to digest.

It also raises the David Byrne question: "How did we get here?"

How did a program that two years ago appeared ready to step up to the next level suddenly sink toward rock bottom yet again?

If it's college sports, recruiting is usually the answer. The truth is, there is little to no depth in Kentucky's junior and senior classes. For whatever reason, the signees from those years were either non-starters, failed to develop or went by the wayside through attrition.

There was a reason that upon being promoted to head coach in 2009, Joker Phillips began re-molding the staff, replacing some of predecessor Rich Brooks' long-time aides with assistants Phillips believed would be better recruiters.

Not all of those moves have worked. Phillips dumped defensive coordinator Steve Brown in favor of veteran Rick Minter, Phillips' old boss when Minter was head coach at Cincinnati. Fifteen games into Minter's tenure, however, there is no evidence that the defense is better than when Brown was in charge, and you could make the argument it has regressed.

Overall, those closest to the program insist there is better quality among the last two to three signing classes. The roster's better players are located in those classes, which is why so many of them have already made the field.

"Well, we've got a lot of young players," Phillips said when asked what he would say to dispirited fans. "We've got a lot of young players, and we'll continue to play them and see how much better they get from week to week."

It may be too late for that.

This being election season, fans have a vote and they have exercised that right. They've voted with their wallets. The home opener against Kent State, fresh off UK's 32-14 loss at Louisville, drew a meager 48,346, the lowest crowd since Commonwealth Stadium was expanded in 1998.

Despite an entertaining win over Kent State the week before, and an in-state rival in WKU, Saturday's game drew just 53,980.

Those are cold, hard numbers for an athletics program that depends in large part on football revenue to fund its department.

The discouraging news is that now the Cats enter SEC play. This week's opponent, Florida, just rocked Rocky Top with a 37-20 win at Tennessee. Then come home games against South Carolina, a top-10 team, and Mississippi State, which is 3-0. There are five more SEC foes after that.

In other words, it figures to get worse before it gets better.

Somehow, Joker Phillips and Co. have to find a way to get the spiral stopped.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226.Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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