Mark Story: Blanton Collier's daughter defends Phillips, says UK football issues run deeper than coaching

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 6, 2012 

  • UK's litany of mostly losing, firing and retiring

    The track record of UK football coaches since Bear Bryant:

    Years Coach Overall record SEC record Why they left UK

    1946-53 Bear Bryant 60-23-5 22-18-4 took another coaching job

    1954-61 Blanton Collier 41-36-3 21-34-3 fired

    1962-68 Charlie Bradshaw 25-41-4 12-30-2 fired

    1969-72 John Ray 10-33 4-24 fired

    1973-81 Fran Curci 47-51-2 25-30 fired

    1982-89 Jerry Claiborne 41-46-3 13-37 retired

    1990-96 Bill Curry 26-52 14-40 fired

    1997-2000 Hal Mumme 20-26 10-22 fired

    2001-02 Guy Morriss 9-14 4-12 took another coaching job

    2003-09 Rich Brooks 39-47 16-40 retired

    2010-12 Joker Phillips x-12-19 x-4-15 incumbent UK head coach

There is an effort under way in Millersburg to raise money to preserve the childhood home of Blanton Collier, the former University of Kentucky football coach who also won the 1964 NFL championship as head man of the Cleveland Browns.

When I called Kay Collier McLaughlin — one of the coach's daughters and the author of his biography — to ask about the renovation efforts, she wanted to talk about something much more in the news.

Collier McLaughlin is steamed over the treatment of the current Kentucky head football coach, the embattled Joker Phillips.

She says anyone willing to apply even the most basic historical analysis should understand by now that the problems that keep UK from winning consistently at football are far bigger than its head coaching.

Blanton Collier, who compiled a 41-36-3 record at UK from 1954-61 while in the unenviable task of following Bear Bryant, was fired after the 1961 season.

To this day, he is the most recent head football coach to leave Kentucky with a winning overall mark.

"It's (51) years since UK fired Daddy," Collier McLaughlin says, "and Joker is the ninth head coach since then. Every one of them, every one, has faced the same issues. The pattern in UK football has been repeated for (51) years, with the solution always being to get rid of the current coach and hire another."

Of the eight Wildcats head coaches between Collier and Phillips, five were fired, two retired with losing records at UK and another left Kentucky with a losing record for another job. Now, Phillips (12-19 after Saturday's loss against Mississippi State) has a roaring inferno of fan dissatisfaction lapping at his coaching seat.

"After nine coaches, shouldn't somebody stop and try to identify the underlying issues and address those?" Collier McLaughlin says. "The hurt I'm feeling today has to do with seeing so many good men and their assistants, all of the families and the children, sacrificed in this manner, without an honest look at WHY this issue (Kentucky failing at football) persists."

Collier McLaughlin says the two primary issues that undermine Kentucky football are not new. In Football's Gentle Giant: The Blanton Collier Story, she printed a letter her father wrote late in his Wildcats career to then-UK President Frank Dickey that examined the status of football at the University of Kentucky.

In the letter, Blanton Collier expresses concern over whether UK can ever consistently win in the rugged Southeastern Conference. He explains to his boss that a main reason that is so is because "the high schools of Kentucky do not at this time consistently produce enough qualified men to fill the needs of such a squad."

Sounds remarkably like the issues raised about Kentucky football now, doesn't it?

In Collier McLaughlin's view, UK has two honorable choices regarding its football program:

1.) Accept historical reality and look for a conference home outside the SEC that would give Kentucky and its players a realistic chance to succeed;

2.) Or if UK, for reasons of finances or tradition or both, does not want to exit the league of which it is an original member "then the university needs to be honest with the public about what is really possible instead of sacrificing coach after coach after coach," she says.

Collier McLaughlin admits the current Kentucky head man has a special place in her heart. Bill Ransdell, the 1980s-era Kentucky quarterback, is Collier McLaughlin's godson. Back in the '80s, Ransdell and one of his favorite UK receivers — Joker Phillips — used to come over to her house to study.

"I have been privileged to watch (Phillips') football acumen, wisdom and integrity develop over many years," she says. "I'm a Joker Phillips fan."

After Blanton Collier parted with UK, he went on to a stellar career coaching the Cleveland Browns, going 76-34-2 in eight seasons (1963-70) and winning the 1964 NFL championship.

Her dad's success after Kentucky, Collier McLaughlin says, is evidence that UK's star-crossed modern football history has not been caused by a lack of quality head coaching.

"In any kind of systems analysis, you look for patterns and identify problems," she says. "At Kentucky, they have not done anything to address the underlying issues (of UK football's lack of success). They just keep firing coaches, and nothing is going to really change until they address the reasons why that has to keep happening."

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

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