It's not the easiest trick to master, by far, pulling yourself out of someone else's shadow, especially when that someone else was your boss, your mentor, the reason you have your job in the first place.
Joker Phillips was Kentucky football's coach-in-waiting, patiently preparing for the day he would take over for Rich Brooks. And then the day came, and the task began, of keeping the good stuff already there, but bringing a fresh new approach to other aspects. Put your stamp on the job.
So far, Phillips has taken the smart path. He hasn't burned bridges, or ripped up scripts. But he hasn't settled for the status quo, either, content to keep things the way they were under Brooks.
Phillips hasn't tried to fix anything, as much as he's tried to improve things. Tweak, not trash.
And so far, as we turn the corner toward summer, he seems to be doing a pretty good job of exactly that.
He closed the deal on recruits: Brooks announced his official retirement a week after UK's Music City Bowl loss to Clemson. It was early January. Signing day was a month away. Making the smooth transition to Phillips had to help, but the new head coach had to close the deal.
He did. Analysts felt the Cats' best signees were their late signees, especially running back Brandon Gainer.
He shook up the staff: This couldn't have been easy. Offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins and defensive line coach Rick Petri were veteran coaches on staff, popular with the players. But no sooner had Phillips taken over than he let both go, opting for what he believes to be upgrade. Gutsy moves.
Phillips brought Mike Summers in from Arkansas to coach the offensive line. Not just Joe B. Hall's son-in-law, Summers has built an impressive reputation working for Bobby Petrino at Louisville, the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, and then Fayetteville. To coach the D-line, Phillips hired David Turner, whom he had worked with on Bill Curry's UK staff back in the '90s. Turner has the reputation for being a good recruiter, something Phillips has emphasized.
Next, Phillips tabbed ex-Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin as wide receivers coach, capitalizing on Martin's connection with UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who was Martin's quarterbacks coach at UT.
Tom Dienhart of Rivals.com listed Summers and Martin in his top 20 assistant coach hires for next fall.
He lured back Rock Oliver: "Coach Rock" they call him at the Nutter Training Center. Rock Oliver had already done one Big Blue tour of duty back in the Rick Pitino days. Oliver knew John Calipari from days at Pittsburgh. The one-two punch of Phillips and Calipari was too much for Oliver, assistant strength coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, to pass up. During spring drills, UK's players talked about the new intensity and influence of "Coach Rock."
Phillips has taken his show on the road: UK sports information director Tony Neely reports that as of last week, Phillips had made 49 different public appearances promoting his new "Operation Win" program.
He's spoken to an ROTC group at 5:30 in the morning, to alumni groups, civic organizations. He's gone on the road with men's and women's basketball. Phillips may not be John Calipari-everywhere, but he's not too far behind.
He's big on program-building: Phillips brought in Cincinnati Bengals' coach Marvin Lewis to speak at UK's annual coaching clinic. He expanded the alumni cookout. He organized a captain's breakfast to bring back past team and game captains to speak to current players in an effort to promote leadership. To that end, he had his team participate in a leadership program.
He has to win: That's the bottom line of course. The smart moves Phillips has made so far won't mean much if the Cats lose at Louisville on Sept. 4. Winning cures all ills. Losing reveals them.
But if Phillips' first task wasn't as easy as breaking that 25-year losing streak to Tennessee, it was no walk in the park either. So far, in this transition phase, he seems to be ahead of the game, a game that's not that easy to win.