Mark Story: It's time for UK, Joker Phillips to part ways

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 3, 2012 

As Joker Phillips fielded question after question about his job status, Mitch Barnhart, the coach's boss and friend, stood in the back of the Kentucky football head man's post-game news conference and listened.

The UK athletics director had his head down, a somber look on his face and his arms crossed.

All season long, the vibe has been that the Kentucky administration has been looking for a viable reason to retain the embattled Phillips for a fourth season.

Now, after a gray, rainy afternoon in a shockingly empty Commonwealth Stadium, UK President Eli Capilouto and Barnhart have the information they need to decide their head football coach's fate.

It is not the answer UK officials wanted, frankly these are not words I have wanted to write, but it is apparent Kentucky needs to change coaches.

Perennial SEC doormat Vanderbilt humiliated UK for the second year in a row, whipping the Cats 40-0 Saturday. The loss dropped UK to 1-9 (0-7 SEC) for 2012. It gave Phillips (12-23) the same record after 35 games that Bill Curry — usually considered the least successful modern Kentucky football coach — had at the same stage of his UK career.

After his mistake-prone team was plastered by Vandy, a subdued Phillips said he "would love" to return in 2013. Yet he seemed almost resigned to what may lie ahead. "I understand this is a business based on results," the UK head man said, "and we haven't gotten results."

Barnhart, approached after the Phillips news conference ended, declined comment.

In a game when all involved with UK football had to know they could be playing for the coaching staff's future, Kentucky was brutal.

The Cats made mental mistake after mental mistake in the kicking game. They fumbled a kickoff in the end zone, then tried to run it out only to be crushed at the 14. They fair caught a punt on their own 5-yard-line. Not once, but twice — twice! — they got penalized for interfering with the Vanderbilt punt returner on fair-catch attempts.

Against a Vandy offense converting 29.2 percent of third-down tries this season, the UK defense surrendered 11 out of 17, including eight out of 10 in the decisive first half.

The Kentucky offense was shut out in its own stadium for the first time since 1993 (48-0 to Tennessee).

Vanderbilt (5-4, 3-3 SEC), the one SEC team UK fans expect to beat with regularity, has now outscored Kentucky 78-8 over the past two seasons.

As grim as things were on the field, they were more depressing in the stands. UK announced a tickets-sold attendance of 44,902. The fans actually in Commonwealth could not have numbered more than 20,000, if that many.

"It was a shock, I'd never seen it like that," Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson said of running out before the noon kickoff into an all-but-empty stadium. "We were kind of joking that the fans thought the game was at 7 o'clock."

I have been a loud voice this fall among those arguing against premature judgement of Phillips' coaching tenure.

The current UK season has been sabotaged by a run of injuries to key players, including starting quarterback Maxwell Smith. Phillips is right when he points out that, historically, successful UK football teams are stocked with veteran players, while the current Cats' depth chart is dominated by freshmen and sophomores (46 playing).

But UK sold the decision late in Rich Brooks' tenure to name Phillips as head coach in waiting as a means to maintain recruiting continuity. The lack of productive veterans currently on the UK roster shows the failure of that plan.

Phillips inherited a program that had enjoyed four straight winning seasons. After winning his first three games as head man, he has now lost 23 of the last 32. In SEC contests, Joker is 4-19.

In a stadium where UK drew more than 67,000 fans for every home game in 2009, the Cats have not announced an attendance larger than 54,553 this season.

Scenarios with struggling coaches can simply become too toxic to reverse.

As much as all of us hate it for Phillips — who has given 23 years of his adult life to UK football as player, assistant or head coach — that now seems the situation here.

Asked specifically if he weren't making it hard on an athletics director who wants to keep him, Phillips said, "There's no doubt about that. We're making it real tough on him."

It will not be easy for Barnhart to fire a friend. For the good of Kentucky football, it is now the decision that needs to be made.

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

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