Seniors persuade fired Kentucky coach to finish football season

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 6, 2012 

There were long pauses coupled with deep swallows.

A few Kentucky football players took deep breaths and tried not to cry.

The emotion was still raw.

The news was still settling in Tuesday that head coach Joker Phillips and his staff wouldn't be back next season after being dismissed by the university on Sunday.

"I wish he could've stayed longer, but that's not my decision," junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "People up top made that decision but, man, I hate to see him go."

Offensive lineman Zach West looked up from the ground as he answered a question: "A lot of people are upset right now."

But even with all the frustration and hurt, the players knew one thing: they wanted Phillips on the UK sideline for their final two games, first on Nov. 17 against Samford and a week later at Tennessee.

Phillips, who Tuesday met with the media for the first time since being fired, said he had his reservations about finishing the year.

The coach said he saw the writing on the wall on Saturday when he looked around Commonwealth Stadium and saw half of the 40,992 announced crowd there. He said his struggles with the decision to coach or not to coach weren't because of pride.

The Kentucky coach's worry was that he'd be a distraction, especially before and during the Samford game for Senior Night.

"I don't want to be sent out," Phillips said, noting that he'd had his own Senior Night years ago when he was a wide receiver for Kentucky. "I don't want an open casket. I don't want to be somebody's centerpiece. ... I want it to be about those seniors."

It was those seniors that helped persuade him to try to end it on a high note with them and for them.

"I wanted him to coach out these last two games," senior center Matt Smith said. "I wanted him to be a part of this with me because he's meant so much since I've been here."

Several of the seniors reminded him of something that he'd said in their living rooms so many years ago.

" 'Hey, Coach, you said you want to help watch us grow up,' " Phillips repeated their message. "And that's the reason I'm doing this, the only reason."

Junior defensive tackle Donte Rumph said the coach sticking out the last two games with the team "shows how much he loves this team and this university."

Love for university was the theme as Phillips spoke for nearly 15 minutes after the Cats' first bye-week practice since his dismissal.

Phillips, who is 12-23 as a head coach in his three years at UK, said he doesn't know what the future holds for him. He'll probably coach again, but he doesn't know when or where.

"I don't have a clue what's next," he said. "The thing I think is best is to step back, step away, let all of the emotions die down and then figure things out."

The one thing Phillips plans to be is a lifelong Kentucky fan, the same bright-eyed teenager that signed with the Cats as a wide receiver in 1981 out of the small town of Franklin.

"I was hoping to have a good career, hoping to be an asset to this place, and I feel like after 20-something-plus years that I have been, regardless of what other people might think," Phillips said.

As a Kentucky fan, Phillips' plan is to keep his season tickets, although he joked he might not be buying as many.

He also had a clear message for his fellow UK football fans.

"We all have a hand if we want this thing to succeed," he said. "We all have a hand in making sure this thing succeeds. It's not moaning and groaning when we don't get the results."

If the next coach doesn't get results as fast as fans hope, Phillips said he hopes the fans will stand behind him anyway.

"Show up in droves," Phillips continued, talking about how hard it was to sell UK when he was a coordinator in 2006 and 2007 when fans were still not filling Commonwealth Stadium despite UK winning games, going 8-5 in both seasons.

"That's not the way you build a program," he said. "Everybody's involved in building a program, especially building a program here. They have to stay behind this team. They have to come out in droves to support this team."

The looks on the players' faces and their words as they spoke about their head coach and his assistants said they need that support now more than ever.

"Everyone's sad," Rumph said. "But we're trying to fight through it, trying to overcome this adversity, trying to get these last two wins."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com

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