The Kentucky head coach knows that fans are unhappy.
He knows they expected more than a lackluster 5-7 last season.
Joker Phillips knows they want to see much better performances on the field this season.
He knows all of this because he's a Kentucky fan, too.
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That was his message to a Rotary Club of Lexington meeting recently and it was a message Phillips reiterated to the media this week in Hoover, Ala., at Southeastern Conference Media Days.
Phillips said no matter what fans think of him or his job performance (11-14 in two seasons as head coach), he hopes they'll support the players on the field when the season starts at Louisville on Sept. 2.
"When I'm done in our business, I'll become one of (the fans)," he said. "I'll become one of the Big Blue Nation's fans. I want to be one of those guys who supports this football team regardless. I'm going to support the players. I'm not going to support anything else but the players. So that was my plea."
The players seemed to echo Phillips when it was their turn to talk.
"Stay with us," senior defender Collins Ukwu said he would tell the Kentucky fans. "At some point this season, we're going to make you happy. And it all starts with the Louisville game. We feel like that's a tempo-setter for us this season."
The lineman said it's his hope that fans could see improvement in the last few games of last season and carry the excitement of the win over Tennessee into this season.
"I remember after the game, you had old ladies and old men in their 70s running up to you saying, 'Thank you' because they haven't seen anything like that before. It was 40-plus years since they've seen a win like that."
Offensive lineman Larry Warford said the team does its best to tune out fan unhappiness, especially with Phillips. The Tennessee win proves the players are still behind their coach, he argued.
"He gives everything for this program," the former Madison Central star said of Phillips, a UK graduate. "He loves it here, loves the fans, loves the players. He's like a father figure for us. ... He just loves this program so much and we feed off that."
One of the biggest challenges for college coaches is getting players to take the leap between their freshman and sophomore seasons, Phillips said this week.
Knowing that and knowing how many freshmen UK counted on last season, Phillips said he couldn't be more excited to bring former standout Jeremy Jarmon onto the Cats staff as assistant director of player personnel.
His recent NFL experience will resonate with UK's players, too. Defensive lineman Collins Ukwu agreed.
"When he was here, he was someone I looked up to," Ukwu said. Jarmon is one of many former UK players Ukwu tries to emulate.
"Jeremy Jarmon, Corey Peters, DeQuin Evans, these are guys that I looked up to, that I said, 'I want to be that type of guy when it's my turn to be a junior or senior,'" Ukwu said. "All of these qualities that you see now, it's just reflecting from them."
'Like a superstar'
Ukwu admitted he wasn't sure exactly what to expect after he was chosen as one of three players to represent UK at the annual Southeastern Conference Media Days.
But the senior admitted it was more fun than he'd imagined.
"I feel like a superstar," he told a group of reporters in the main media room. "This is all part of the game and I'm really enjoying it right now. You don't want to say anything you regret. You want to be smart and think about what you say before you say it."
Knowing that if you say something not so intelligent it could be up on Twitter in seconds is definitely daunting, he said.
"That's the crazy part about social media," Ukwu said. "Everything just expands. If you say one little thing — and every person you talk to, it's like an interview. They can easily put something on Twitter and tag your name to it. It's crazy."
Before his main session with the media at SEC Media Days, Phillips told a small group of reporters that he was quite excited to see UK linemen Collins Ukwu, Matt Smith and Larry Warford look so dapper (all in new suits, even with suspenders) when they got to Hoover.
"I saw they tweeted out last night they're excited to dress in some nice-looking clothes," Phillips said smiling.
He also added that Kentucky has a program in the regular season called "Straight Talk," where they bring in guests to educate players and teach them non-football-related life lessons. One of those lectures last season was on fashion, including how to properly tie a tie.
"The thing we're doing at Kentucky is we're trying to prepare our young men for the rest of their lives," Phillips said.
Senior center Matt Smith said there was no need to bring in someone to teach tie tying. After four years at St. Xavier in Louisville, where ties are mandatory attire, Smith admitted he was a little bit bored with that class.
"I very well could have taught the class," Smith said. "They didn't need to hire anybody."
With another SEC Media (Circus) Days in the books, football really kicks into another gear around these parts.
Here are a few dates of note:
On Thursday, Louisville Coach Charlie Strong and UK Coach Joker Phillips will speak at the Governor's Cup Luncheon in Simpsonville, officially kicking off the start of football time in the Bluegrass.
■ On Friday, Kentucky will host its annual Kickoff Luncheon at the Bluegrass Ballroom in the Lexington Center. Phillips has a question-and-answer session with fans to discuss the upcoming season.
Individual tickets for the event, which runs from noon to 1:30 p.m., cost $40 and a table for 10 costs $400. Fans can email Elizabeth Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
■ The annual women's football clinic will be held Saturday at the UK football facilities. Coaches make short presentations and take questions from participants. Also, many key players are introduced.
It is a clinic for women with all levels of football knowledge. Registration can be done at www.ukathletics.com or in person at 8 a.m. on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium (Gate 4).
The registration fee is $65. Questions should be directed to the UK football office's Lisa Ellis at email@example.com or (859) 257-3611.
■ Kentucky's Media Day is scheduled for Aug. 3 and Fan Day is Aug. 4 at Commonwealth Stadium. Gates open at 5 p.m.
In my recent quest to find interesting post-college stories about old Kentucky football players, I was contacted by Pat Porter, a former walk-on tight end at UK, who graduated in 1990.
Porter, a Flemingsburg native, wanted to alert me to a LinkedIn site (www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=162103&trk=hb_side_g) he created four years ago for former UK player to connect with one another.
It's a natural fit for Porter, who now is the human resources director at a company in Dublin, Ohio. As of Friday, his page had 145 members, but he's excited to add more. Just in the past few years, Porter said he's been able to reconnect with lots of former players, many of whom he'd never met or played with.
"My goal is to just help former football alumni more easily connect," he said. "I'm happy to be a catalyst to help people connect, create opportunities and help promote UK football in whatever ways I can."
Because of connections already made on his site, Porter said about 25 members are planning a trip to Canton, Ohio, to cheer on former Kentucky star and Lexington native Dermontti Dawson as the center is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 4.