John Clay: Phillips remains classy to the end

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 6, 2012 

The thing about Joker Phillips is he never got a honeymoon.

He got the courtship, the time when Fran Curci recruited the Franklin-Simpson wide receiver to play football at the University of Kentucky. He did the grunt work, as a player, as an assistant coach, first in the unsuccessful operation under Bill Curry, then in a more successful endeavor led by Rich Brooks.

He waited patiently, serving as the coach-in-waiting under Brooks. He got his big day, when Brooks officially stepped down and Phillips moved into the big office, the one where the biggest decisions are made.

He never got the honeymoon, however. He wasn't the new, exciting guy, whose early missteps were overlooked or excused. He was the familiar guy, the comfortable guy, the guy who had been around for 20-something years and was expected to continue what had been done before.

Thing is, familiarity breeds contempt. That's the sad part, the bad part. Joker Phillips wasn't seen as a third-year head coach trying to build a program. He was seen by fans as a 10-year UK coach who couldn't get it done.

This is big business at the college level and fans are customers. When UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart said Saturday he wanted to thank the "real fans" who showed up for the Vanderbilt game — about 19,000 of them according to some estimates — while knocking the ones who didn't show as having some sort of "agenda," what the AD was really doing was insulting his customers. That's usually not a good way to go.

And where Barnhart has remained silent on the subject of Phillips' firing or his criteria for a successor, Phillips spoke on Tuesday, took questions from the media, spoke to the public through the media.

He was classy. He was serious. He was light-hearted. He spoke of wanting only nothing but success for his alma mater. In other words, he was Joker.

It's what he has always been, through the good times, the bad times, those in-between times. He knew what was going on this season. He knew what the public was saying, what the media was saying. He never lashed out, however. Not at the media, the administration, the fans.

There were times, after poor performances, where you wanted him to show more emotion, more anger. But he wouldn't do it. He couldn't do it. Not for show, anyway. That would be fake. And Joker Phillips is not a fake.

He's a good football coach, too, despite what his critics might say or his head coaching record suggests. Phillips was on the money Tuesday when he made a brief defense of his tenure, especially as offensive coordinator. He just didn't have the nickname, the "Air Raid" logo. That was a gimmick. Phillips isn't a gimmick guy.

He's a relationship guy. That's the biggest change he wanted to make as head coach. He could see what was coming. Recruiting had dipped. Attrition was taking its toll. He took action, replacing some of Brooks' tried-and-true assistants with assistants of his own choosing, ones he thought would build stronger relationships with the players.

In the end, it was too little, too late. You can say that Phillips' fate was sealed by the row after row after row of empty seats at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday. Really, it was sealed the second offensive play of the South Carolina game on Sept. 29 when Maxwell Smith suffered ligament damage to his ankle.

"You must, must have a quarterback here," Phillips said. "Tell me when we've won when we didn't have a quarterback."

So now we're to the break-up phase of the relationship. Sunday, Barnhart informed Phillips of his decision, met with the team, wrote his open letter to the fans, then closed down communications.

But Phillips was out there Tuesday morning at football practice, having made the decision to coach the final two games. After meeting with the media, he was talking and smiling with compliance director Sandy Bell, shaking hands with his old assistant coach Jake Hallum.

He was Joker Phillips.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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