KNOXVILLE — The Kentucky seniors each had their own way to mark the end of their college football careers.
For former Henry Clay star Aaron Boyd, it was pulling up a few blades of the Neyland Stadium grass.
For center Matt Smith, who had dreamed of playing for Kentucky since he was a kid at Our Mother of Good Counsel in Louisville, it was keeping on his gear for a few seconds longer.
"I just sat there for a while in my pads and jersey; didn't want to take them off," Smith said after Kentucky fell to Tennessee 37-17 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Never miss a local story.
It was difficult for fellow senior Martavius Neloms as well.
"I can't believe it's the last time I'll wear the blue and white," he said later.
They didn't go out as winners, not this time.
Their season ended with just two wins, none in the Southeastern Conference. But none of that seemed to matter.
"It's been an awesome ride; it's been a great five years," Smith said. "I couldn't ask for anything more. I've had a great year this year. Even though our record didn't show it, we didn't win as many games as we wanted to, but I've had a lot of fun with these guys. I've some great relationships that I never thought I would. I couldn't ask for more. I was able to live my dream and that's all you can ask for."
Smith admitted that it was strange to think of Kentucky moving forward.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet, but you've got all of the coaches in there and the other players and you're talking about the future without them and without us; it's tough," he said.
The coaches have left their mark on all of the players in the locker room, which was described as emotional and reverent.
And even though he's on his way out, head coach Joker Phillips made it clear that he'd be back in players' faces if they didn't follow through on promises to him.
"One thing I will do is come back and haunt them if they do not take care of business in the class room," the coach said. "I don't want people to say there's no talent here. I don't want people to say this team doesn't know how to work."
For the first time in the nearly three weeks since he was dismissed from the place he's been a part of for more than 20 years, Phillips allowed himself to get emotional.
He talked about being happy that he came back to coach the final two games.
"There were a lot of good teaching moments in these last three weeks," he said. "I learned a lot in the last three weeks. But it's time to go. I understand that. It's definitely time to go."
The players finally saw their coach flinch over his firing.
"It was the first time he's shown a little bit of emotion, gotten a little choked up there, talking about how he's going to miss everybody," Smith said.
And they're going to miss him, too. What were Smith's parting words for his coach, he was asked.
"That I love him," Smith said. "He's meant everything to me. ... It's been a great relationship between me and him and a lot of guys on this team. It's been awesome and I'm going to miss him."
Minter frustrated by exit
Defensive coordinator Rick Minter spent several minutes of the post-game news conference discussing his friend and boss Phillips.
And he had some pointed words for the administration at Kentucky.
"Unfortunately we live in this day and age where no one really gets the four, five, six or more (years), particularly if it's underachieving in the eyes of the bill payers, you know?" Minter told a group of reporters. "Go back and look at Frank Beamer's record (at Virginia Tech). That's the guy, you know? He's an alumnus, they gave him four, five, six and then a lot of people said let's go another direction and somebody said, 'Nah, let's give him a little bit more time' and then look what happened, it took off. He was the same guy in year one as he was in year five or six but he finally got something to click, whatever that was, got it going."
Minter was disappointed that Phillips didn't get more time to turn things around at his alma mater.
"I feel bad so bad for Joker, I really do, because he was a lifer here that really was on the right track," Minter said. "I know people don't want to hear that but he was on the right track."
Summers up for award
Even though UK's record didn't end up being what it wanted this season, one of its assistant coaches, offensive line coach Mike Summers, is up for the 2012 Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. The five finalists will be announced on Monday, with the winner being awarded on Dec. 4.
When asked earlier this week about his position coach, offensive lineman Larry Warford offered a glowing recommendation.
"Keep him where he's at," Warford said to the next head coach. He's an awesome O-line coach. I honestly believe the best in the nation. He's turned a bunch of guys who would have been average at best and made them super football players, I mean great football players."