Mark Story: At Florida, Joker Phillips morphs into a social-media machine

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 26, 2013 

  • UK FOOTBALL

    No. 20 Florida at Kentucky | When: 7 p.m. Saturday | Records: Florida 2-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 1-2 (0-0) | TV: ESPNU

In three often-frustrating seasons as Kentucky head football coach, Joker Phillips struggled to create much of a "buzz" around the UK program.

That now seems retroactively ironic, since Phillips in his new role as Florida wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator has become a one-man buzz generator thanks to his provocative use of social media as a tool to woo high school prospects.

On March 27, Phillips tweeted out a picture of the late actor Heath Ledger as the villainous Joker from the Batman movie The Dark Knight Returns — Photoshopped into a blue-and-orange Florida suit. From that time on, Phillips' Twitter feed has featured other bizarro memes: Jack Nicholson's Joker also wearing Florida school colors; a Kiss-like rock band called The Jokers; an astronaut planting a Florida Gators flag on the moon.

All have carried the hashtag #ComePlayWRForTheJoker.

While testing the axiom that all publicity is good publicity, the campaign made the 50-year-old Phillips one of the most talked-about college football assistants in the country.

A USA Today writer referred to Phillips' Photoshopping as a "slightly peculiar, oft-nightmare-inducing tactic."

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger wrote that Phillips "is like that uncle you have who finally discovers a 'new' technology and then drives everyone crazy with it."

One Yahoo Sports blogger addressed Phillips directly. "OK, Joker, we get it. You got a Groupon for a Photoshop class and now we all have to suffer."

On the other hand, after Phillips tweeted out the picture of the faux rock band, The Jokers, a reporter at Sports Illustrated wrote "we like Joker Phillips better right now than we ever have."

About the same image, the website MrSEC.com noted "it doesn't make a lot of sense, but it does grab people's attention. And that's what Phillips is trying to accomplish on the recruiting trail."

Florida does not make its position coaches available for interviews, so Phillips has been silent about his transformation into social-media stalwart. A UF spokesman said Thursday that a student assistant in Phillips' office did the actual Photoshopping of the images — and noted that Phillips has toned down his Twitter feed now that the season is under way.

On April 13, CBSSports.com writer Jeremy Fowler tweeted that he ran into Phillips in the Atlanta airport and asked Joker about his sudden fondness for posting off-the-wall, Photoshopped pictures on Instagram.

"The kids like it," is what Fowler said Phillips told him.

There is evidence to support that. Ermon Lane, who Rivals ranks as the fourth-best wide receiver in the country in the Class of 2014, and Da'Vante Phillips, who ESPN rates as the second-best wideout nationally in the 2015 class, have both pledged to #ComePlayWRForTheJoker.

Chris Hays, who covers recruiting for the Orlando Sentinel, said Thursday that Phillips' over-the-top use of social media has been savvy.

"A lot of kids now, they don't want to get lots of phone calls," he said. "Not all (recruits) are on social media, but the ones that are tend to be really into it. For a coach to find a way to communicate where the kids are (at) and do it in a way that stands out is smart."

Now, the obvious question from a Kentucky perspective is where was this sense of innovation when Phillips was in charge of the UK program?

Jeff Drummond of AllWildcats.com (a Scout site) has covered UK football recruiting since 1999. He says the Phillips on display on Twitter since he went to Florida "is quite a diversion from his normal persona. Especially when it came to recruiting, he was always about building relationships with kids and really not much about the bells and whistles."

The atmosphere surrounding the UK football program turned toxic so quickly during Phillips' tenure as head coach that comic photos as a recruiting tactic would not have worked. "With the ways things were going by the end, there would have been more negative backlash than positive," said Drummond.

There is also a difference in how the actions of a head coach and a recruiting coordinator are perceived. It's not Florida head man Will Muschamp, after all, tweeting out pictures of a "Kentucky Derby horse" named #ComePlayWRForTheJoker.

In the off-season, Muschamp told a Gators booster gathering "I'm not very good at that stuff. (But) we have some coaches that have good imaginations."

The buzz-creating machine that, suddenly, is Joker Phillips is at the top of that list.


UK FOOTBALL

No. 20 Florida at Kentucky | When: 7 p.m. Saturday | Records: Florida 2-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 1-2 (0-0) | TV: ESPNU

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

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