Mark Story: What Joker Phillips should do next — and what Mitch Barnhart should do

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 24, 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)

There was a notion bouncing around the social media from some Kentucky fans Saturday after UK's 38-0 pasting by Florida that Joker Phillips should resign as UK head coach.

In reaction, let's channel ESPN's Herm Edwards: HELLO?

If Kentucky fires Phillips, it will (as I read his contract) owe Joker some $1.7 million for the 2013 season and some $850,000 for 2014.

If Phillips instead resigns, UK owes him nada.

We won't need Warren Buffett to figure out that business equation. Whatever happens going forward in this season of football discontent at Kentucky (1-3), the one thing Phillips (12-17 overall as UK coach) absolutely, positively should not do for his own self interest is resign.

So what should happen next with Phillips and UK?

One thing that drives me batty about sports culture now is everyone wants decisions made on what we think is going to happen intead of letting actual events play out.

So here's a novel thought.

In the case of Phillips and his job, why don't we at least wait this season until there is no mathematical hope of Kentucky having a winning season before calling for his immediate dismissal.

Yes, it felt to me that UK's crushing overtime loss to Western Kentucky two Saturdays ago was the "tipping point" in a negative direction in Phillips tenure' as head man at his alma mater. Yet as dispirited as the environment around Kentucky football is, it is not impossible that the Cats could make a second-half-of-the-season rally.

I don't give UK much of a shot against "Steve Superior" and South Carolina Saturday, but the second part of Kentucky's schedule does not look as daunting as it did before the season.

After Bobby Petrino self-destructed, Arkansas is in free fall. Missouri is finding out what a brutal grind football in the SEC is. Vanderbilt, so far, has looked more like 'Same Old Vandy' than 'New and Improved Vandy.' There's still plenty of heat beneath Derek Dooley's seat at Tennessee, so who knows how that situation plays out.

If Kentucky could make a stand against No. 21 Mississippi State in Lexington on Oct. 6 and pull an upset, there could be the opportunity for an unexpected UK turnaround. As we learned with Rich Brooks in 2006, when there is still a mathematical chance for things to work out for a coach, sometimes they work out.

Which brings us to what UK should be doing now.

In the short term, meaning the next month or so, Kentucky and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart should be sitting tight. Unless or until the Kentucky record reaches the point that, mathematically, Phillips cannot have a winning record in 2012, there is nothing to be done.

Phillips has given 22 years of his life as player, assistant or head coach to the Kentucky football program. He deserves a full chance to salvage this season.

However, if and when UK loses a seventh game in 2012 (the point at which it could not be bowl eligible), then Kentucky and its athletics administration have a choice.

If at that point UK has decided it will make a coaching change regardless of what happens the rest of the way, then it would be justified in announcing that immediately even if there are games remaining to be played.

That is what then-Kentucky Athletics Director C.M. Newton did in 1996 with Bill Curry. After UK (then playing an 11-game schedule) lost its sixth game at LSU, Newton held a news conference with four games left in the '96 season to announce that Curry had been fired.

Conversely, if the current UK season hits the mathematical point of no return (to a bowl), Barnhart would have the option of waiting to view the whole season before announcing Phillips' fate. But that would only make sense if there is a viable scenario in which Barnhart is willing to retain Phillips even if Kentucky does not have a winning season.

Should Kentucky fire Joker with games left, it has to decide who coaches out the season. In 1996, Curry stayed and finished what he had started. Personally, I'm not a fan of interim coaches so I would give Phillips that chance if he wants it.

Bottom lines: Joker Phillips should be hoping against hope that a young roster and second-half schedule that appears slightly more manageable than expected combine to produce a Brooks-in-2006 stay of career execution.

Mitch Barnhart should do nothing unless or until Kentucky accumulates its seventh loss — though it would be prudent to have a list of potential head football coaches ready to go.

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

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