Mark Story: Hard for Joker to win, harder to leave

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 24, 2012 

KNOXVILLE — Before the football was snapped on the final play of Joker Phillips' final game as Kentucky head football coach Saturday, one of the referees working the Kentucky-Tennessee game turned his back to the field and stuck out his right hand.

Phillips shook it.

When the Neyland Stadium clocks turned to 0:00, Phillips did what he's done too many times (24 in 37 games) in three seasons as head man at his alma mater. With the scoreboard showing Tennessee 37, Kentucky 17, he trudged toward midfield for the post-game hand shake as the losing coach.

Some three weeks since Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced that Phillips would not be back for a fourth season as Cats head man, the UK coach turned and made the long walk toward the south end zone and the Wildcats locker room.

Once inside, for one last time, Joker talked to his team.

"He got choked up, talked about how much he is going to miss everybody," Kentucky senior center Matt Smith said.

Said UK linebacker Alvin Dupree: "You could see it in his eyes, he seemed very much more emotional (than normal)."

In a sense, Phillips' final game leading UK was a microcosm of his overall tenure as Kentucky head coach.

Over three seasons, Phillips never did find the right formula to get a consistent defense on the field. Against Tennessee on Saturday, the Volunteers and big-play quarterback Tyler Bray hung five touchdown drives of 2:12 or less on the Cats.

Meanwhile, against a struggling Tennessee defense, UK accumulated 412 yards and 17 points — but the opportunities for far more were available. The Cats twice failed to convert on fourth-and-1 and failed to score touchdowns on two different trips into the UT red zone (instead going 1-for-2 on field-goal tries).

"The thing we couldn't do," Phillips said, "is get the ball in the end zone."

Whatever else one thinks about the job Phillips did after inheriting a four-year bowl streak and the Kentucky head coaching job from his former boss, Rich Brooks, there are three things no one can ever take away from Joker.

He will always be in UK sports lore as the Kentucky head coach who ended the Cats' oh-for-all-eternity schneid against Steve Spurrier and the 26-year losing streak to Tennessee.

Phillips also deserves to be well-remembered for the dignity and class with which he conducted himself in 2012 amidst the escalating negativity that engulfed UK football. That has especially been so in the three weeks since he was fired.

"Joker has been as class as class can be," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said.

It can't have been easy.

Sure, with a $2.5 million contract buyout due to Phillips from UK, the ex-coach will not be on unemployment benefits.

That doesn't make failing in such a high-profile position easier to take.

Head football coach at Kentucky was Phillips' dream job. First as a wide receiver for Fran Curci and Jerry Claiborne, then later in two different stints as a UK assistant coach, Phillips has given 23 years of his adult life to Kentucky football.

Rick Minter, the Kentucky defensive coordinator, said Phillips often reminded his assistants that UK was more than a job. "His words would be, 'This is my school,' " Minter said. "Well (his school) threw him out. No matter what you say, they threw him out. ... (Phillips) can say he's numb. I guarantee, he'll feel it."

In a better world, head coaches would get more than three seasons. "It was a quick trigger in my estimation," Minter said of UK firing Phillips.

Given the message-board culture of impatience we live in now, three years is not unfair. Anyone who saw how poorly Kentucky played this season while going 2-10 and how empty Commonwealth Stadium was can't have any real argument with UK's decision to change course.

In his final news conference as Kentucky head man, Phillips implored fans to give his successor, whoever it turns out to be, "a chance."

"I'm not up here saying I didn't get a chance, because I did," Phillips said. "But give the (next) guy a chance. Given a chance, this thing can be good."

On Nov. 24, 1984, Phillips left Neyland Stadium following his final regular-season game as a Kentucky player with a victory. On Nov. 24, 2012, his final game as Kentucky head coach did not end as happily.

"It's time to go," Phillips said. "It's definitely time to go."

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

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