Mark Story: Buzzard's luck has helped bring the vultures that are circling Joker Phillips

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 17, 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)

With the vultures circling following Kentucky's crushing 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky University, Joker Phillips put the best face he could Monday on an adverse situation.

"I'm built for this," the embattled University of Kentucky football coach said. "I was 0-10-1 (as a Kentucky player in 1982). 'We'll get it turned. Stay together.' We were 9-3 (in 1984). And I've been around some head coaches that I've got a chance to watch go through this. We're fine. I'm fine."

After the loss to Sun Belt Conference foe WKU on Saturday, Phillips now stands 12-16 as UK head man. The next five games for Kentucky (1-2) are against the nation's No. 14, No. 7, No. 23 and No. 5 teams — plus a road trip to Arkansas.

I would be happy to be proven wrong, but with plunging Commonwealth Stadium ticket sales added in to what looks like a grim scenario in 2012, it's hard now to see how Phillips survives this season.

Have I mentioned that I feel a little sorry for Phillips?

He has made some mistakes, but from the time he was named Kentucky's head coach in waiting after the 2007 season, bad luck and bad timing have been his constant companions.

Start with the timing. In 2007, Phillips as offensive coordinator presided over one of the best offenses (36.5 points and 443 yards a game) in Kentucky history. That Andre' Woodson-led attack was the strength of a Wildcats team that beat the defending SEC West champions (Arkansas), two top-10 teams (No. 9 Louisville and No. 1 LSU) and a perennial national power (Florida State) in a bowl game.

Had Phillips become head coach then, he would have inherited the job with gale-force momentum at his back.

Instead, he became UK head man after the 2009 season. For Joker, that timing could not have worked out worse.

The '09 regular season ended with Kentucky having a chance to beat Tennessee late in regulation at Commonwealth Stadium. It was a victory Kentucky fans, sick of having lost to the locally loathed Volunteers every season since 1984, desperately craved.

But the Cats failed to score a potential game-winning touchdown from deep in UT territory when Phillips, as play caller, did not put the ball in the hands of star Randall Cobb on UK's final two attempts from scrimmage. Tennessee went on to win in overtime.

Leaving Commonwealth Stadium that night, I'd never seen UK fans as angry. The ire from that one game, in my opinion, served to deprive Phillips of any honeymoon when he became head coach.

Along with bad timing, Joker has had plain old bad luck.

In the year before Phillips became Kentucky head man, UK signed not one but two high school quarterbacks — Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton — that were ranked as four-star prospects by at least one major rating service.

You would have thought for certain that one of them would provide Phillips the kind of quarterback play Woodson supplied Rich Brooks on the eight-win UK teams of 2006 and '07.

Instead, Mossakowski underwent major shoulder surgery before he ever got to UK and never threw a pass in a Kentucky game. After transferring to a junior college, he is now quarterbacking Lamar of the FCS. Newton has made 17 career starts but has thrown for more than 200 yards in a game exactly twice. As a senior this year, he is backing up true sophomore Maxwell Smith.

Quarterbacking misfortune bit Phillips in another way after his first regular season. Before a 6-6 Kentucky was to face Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, UK starter Mike Hartline was involved in a late-night altercation with a woman that ended with his being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

Phillips (correctly) suspended the fifth-year senior for the bowl game. With Hartline, the UK offense had scored 31 points or more in five of eight SEC games in 2010. Without him in the bowl, the offense looked anemic in a 27-10 loss to Pitt.

Had Kentucky won that one game, it would have given Phillips a winning record for his first season. From a perception standpoint, that would have left him, even after last year's 5-7 campaign, in a far stronger position to survive 2012 no matter what this season holds.

When it comes to coaching football at Kentucky, the margin of error is thinner than a nail file. To survive, a coach needs to catch some breaks.

For Joker Phillips, more than his share have been bad.

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

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