Mark Story: The question that should determine whether Joker Phillips is fired

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 22, 2012 

Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips walked off the field after the Georgia at Kentucky football game at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 20, 2012. Georgia won 29-24. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

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The Monday after the loss ensuring that Kentucky will have its third straight losing football season under head coach Joker Phillips came without any announcement about the coach's future.

In 1996, on the Monday after a loss at LSU that ensured that Bill Curry's seventh season as UK head man could not produce a winning record, then-UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton announced that Curry would not return for 1997.

That current UK AD Mitch Barnhart made no such call Monday could mean that Phillips (12-21 overall) and his team (1-7, 0-5 SEC) still have a chance to save the embattled head man's job.

However, it seems to me that what has to determine the fate of Phillips is one question: Do Barnhart and UK President Eli Capilouto genuinely think that Kentucky will have a winning season in 2013?

The numbers against retaining Phillips are mounting.

Joker inherited a program that had enjoyed four straight winning seasons; he has now produced three straight losing ones. Phillips has lost 21 of his last 30 games and is 4-17 against SEC foes.

Attendance in Commonwealth Stadium is in free-fall. In 2009, the season before Phillips became UK head man, Kentucky averaged 69,594 fans a home game. This year, through five games, UK is putting 51,237 a contest in Commonwealth.

Even if you accept that the possibility of renegotiated SEC TV contracts (thanks to the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri) might lessen the financial pressure UK feels to have its stadium filled, the empty seats in Commonwealth create a lackluster environment not conducive to building positive program momentum.

Unless UK runs off a string of unexpected wins to close 2012, it's hard to imagine any scenario for next season in which Phillips returns as Kentucky head man and the fans who have been lost come back to Commonwealth Stadium.

Yet as badly as things have gone for Kentucky and Phillips, there are valid arguments for bringing him back for a fourth season.

The current UK season has been decimated by injuries to key players. If you viewed this as a make-or-break season for Joker, isn't the fair thing to do to give him a reset and another shot next year?

If your theory of what's gone wrong with Kentucky football is that the recruiting classes signed late in the Rich Brooks era have not lived up to expectations, Phillips has tried to address that issue by replacing all but two of the holdover assistants from the old staff. That new UK staff recruited the freshmen and sophomores who now seem to form the most talented part of the Kentucky roster.

In 2005, amid much clamor to oust Brooks after the coach had gone 9-25 in his first three seasons, albeit while navigating Hal Mumme-era NCAA sanctions, Barnhart and then-UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. kept him.

The fans revolted, and attendance in 2006 in Commonwealth dropped to 57,330 a game. That team, however, staged a late-season rally and won eight games and the Music City Bowl.

Kentucky home attendance in 2007 averaged 68,824 a game.

Is such a 2006-style turnaround possible for the Wildcats in 2013?

Kentucky should be better at quarterback if Maxwell Smith can stay healthy and/or Patrick Towles develops (assuming both are still at UK next season).

If Josh Clemons returns to health, he would join a solid corps of running backs that includes Jonathan George, Raymond Sanders, Dyshawn Mobley and redshirting freshman Justin Taylor.

Kentucky will have three starters back from this season's quality offensive line and a young nucleus of promising wide receivers led by Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins, DeMarcus Sweat and A.J. Legree.

Defensively, Kentucky will return its entire tackle rotation, linebackers Miles Simpson, Avery Williamson and Alvin Dupree, and all those true freshmen now playing in the secondary who are being toasted but will presumably benefit from that experience in 2013.

As a team, UK should start back upward next season — but is that enough to produce a winning season against a schedule that will include the teams currently ranked No. 1, No. 3, No. 12, No. 13, No. 16 and No. 17 in this week's AP poll?

At this point, the equation on keeping or firing Phillips seems pretty basic to me.

If the powers that be at UK think Kentucky can win next season, there is a case to be made for keeping Joker.

If they think Kentucky cannot have a winning record in 2013, UK has little choice but to make a change.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230Email: mstory@herald-leader.comTwitter: @markcstoryBlog: markstory.bloginky.com

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