John Clay: How can Joker Phillips survive this storm?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 13, 2012 

  • Kentucky at Louisville

    When: Noon Saturday

    TV: ESPN2

    Records: Louisville 8-3 (5-3 ACC); Kentucky 5-6 (2-6 SEC)

    Series: Kentucky leads 14-12

    Line: Louisville by 12½

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — As much as you wanted to fight the feeling this stormy Saturday night in Northwest Arkansas, you couldn't help but wonder if this was the beginning of the end.

The pounding Kentucky took at the hands of Arkansas was a high school football team playing an SEC football team. It was boys trying to play against men.

For a Kentucky football program that not so long ago went to five consecutive bowl games, it was embarrassing and disheartening. And for Coach Joker Phillips, you had to wonder if it was the tipping point of his three-year tenure as coach.

On its first offensive play of the first quarter, Arkansas scored on a 74-yard touchdown pass. On its final play of the first quarter, Arkansas scored on a 77-yard touchdown pass. It was 28-0 Razorbacks at the end of the first period. It was 42-0 Razorbacks at the half.

It was, as they say, rock bottom.

True, this is an Arkansas team not without talent, one that was ranked in the top 10 in pre-season. Yet this was an Arkansas team that was outscored 110-10 in its first two league games this year, an Arkansas team that lost at home to Louisiana-Monroe and to Rutgers.

If you didn't expect Phillips' Cats to beat the Razorbacks at home, you expected them to be competitive. They weren't even close to competitive. This is UK's first five-game losing streak since 2004, when the Cats lost seven in a row on the way to a 2-9 record. That was Rich Brooks' second season as the Kentucky coach, when he was still trying to rebuild a program saddled with scholarship restrictions.

Phillips is trying to overcome a two-year recruiting drought that, given his role as head coach in waiting, happened when he was on the staff. The primary reason Phillips was given the job was to continue what had been started under Brooks, the string of four straight bowl games. Not squeeze in a fifth and have the wheels fall off.

Injuries have certainly played a major role in this year's horror story. Kentucky built an offense around a quarterback in Maxwell Smith, who ended up playing all of three games and two plays. Unless UK files for some sort of exemption, it's still a 12-game season.

Kentucky's secondary is almost totally first-year players, and Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson took advantage, teaching the youngsters a painful conference lesson. With 10 minutes left in the third quarter, Wilson already had thrown five touchdown passes.

Sadly, there also is this: When Smith was the starting quarterback, injuries had begun to multiply. Kentucky lost to Western Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium. The injuries didn't make a good team bad; it made a bad team worse. Much worse.

On a dark Saturday night in Baton Rouge in 1996, Kentucky lost to LSU 41-14 to drop to 1-6 overall and 0-4 in the SEC. The next day, athletics director C.M. Newton informed Bill Curry that he would not be retained as coach at the end of the season. Phillips was on Curry's staff.

I'm not expecting a repeat this Sunday. I think current AD Mitch Barnhart wants to give Phillips every opportunity to succeed. This debacle in the Ozarks, however, didn't make that any easier.

The same goes for all the empty seats expected to greet the Cats next Saturday when they return home to play Georgia. In the end, the decision on Phillips' future won't be as much sentimental as it is economical. The fans have cast their vote.

Barnhart gets the final vote. He's the man in charge, the one who has to weigh all the options, then make the final decision. For an athletic director who clearly wants a credible reason to stick with the head coach he has, this stormy Saturday night made that reason much more difficult to find.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog:

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