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Joker brings plenty of assets to the table

Joker Phillips is not a national celebrity. Into the cut-throat world of SEC football coaching, Phillips brings exactly zero prior experience as a head man.

Like many UK fans, I was puzzled and frustrated by some of Phillips' late-game play calling in 2009.

Yet allowing for all that, Phillips brings significant assets to the job of Kentucky head football coach he stands to inherit now that Rich Brooks has ridden off into the sunset.

Look, I wish Joker had kept the ball in Randall Cobb's hands at the end of the Tennessee game. But that and other late-game controversies this season should not overshadow this fact: Phillips has been a good offensive coordinator at Kentucky.

In my book, you judge a coach by whether he is able to adapt his strategies to the talent he has.

In 2005, when Kentucky couldn't pass protect, Phillips built his offense around Rafael Little's running. In 2006 and '07, when Andre Woodson blossomed as a quarterback and UK had a stable of gifted receivers, Kentucky emphasized the pass.

This year, after Mike Hartline's injury, Kentucky had no down-field passing attack. Yet Phillips, as UK's head coach of offense, figured out how to parlay the running of two smallish playmakers (Cobb and Derrick Locke) into five more wins and a fourth-straight bowl appearance.

"He has adapted to the material he's had to work with," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said of Phillips on Monday, after Brooks announced his retirement as UK coach. "We've won with a passing game. We've won with a running game. I think that shows great flexibility and intelligence in a coaching staff."

Phillips is a willing and energetic recruiter. The pipeline into Georgia that has been such a boon to UK in recent years is largely the result of Phillips' efforts.

Don't underestimate what an advantage a head man who will put the sweat equity into recruiting can be.

Being head football coach at the University of Kentucky is Joker Phillips' dream job. It's the school for which he played, where he's worked as an assistant under three different coaches.

"One of the things he has that I didn't, he's not an outsider," Brooks said of Phillips. "He's a Kentucky guy. He lives and breathes this job."

Said Barnhart: "Joker has a tremendous love of Kentucky football. He played here. It's his school. It's in his blood. But that isn't the qualification that got him the job. He's been a top-level assistant coach for a long time."

Would it be better if Phillips had head coaching experience?

Of course.

Still, Phil Fulmer had never been a head man when he wrested the Tennessee job away from Johnny Majors.

He went on to win a national championship.

Mark Richt had never been a head man when he got the Georgia job.

He's won 10 games or more six times in nine years.

Dan Mullen had never been a head man when he went to Mississippi State this season.

His performance in year one in Starkville was widely praised.

Could Kentucky have found a better candidate now with an open search instead of a coach-in-waiting scenario put in place two years ago?

Maybe. We'll never know.

The UK brass believed two years ago it had a coach within its program deserving of the head coaching position.

Phillips deserves a fair chance to prove them right.

Barnhart said Monday he does not expect Phillips to call his own plays now that he's head man. "Those reins will be handed to someone else," the Kentucky AD said.

Going forward, if Phillips is going to make staff changes, I'd like to see him add a couple of younger coaches, guys who will be really aggressive (by which I don't mean cheat) on the recruiting trail.

With Louisville now apparently joining Mississippi State and Florida as annual UK opponents that run the spread option, Joker better make darned sure he has a defensive staff that knows how to stop it.

Coaching hires are notoriously hard to handicap. What looks great coming in (Bill Curry) can seem a disaster going out. What is panned coming in (Brooks) can look pretty darned good going out.

So for the segments of the UK fan base that seem to have lost some enthusiasm for promoting Phillips, let's say this:

Don't let a fixation on what Joker Phillips doesn't bring to the Kentucky football job blind you to some formidable assets that he does.

Joker Phillips


Born: April 12, 1963, in Franklin, Ky.

High school: Franklin-Simpson High School (graduated in 1981).

College: Graduated from UK in 1986 with a degree in business administration.

Athletic experience: Was a three-sport standout at Franklin-Simpson. An all-state quarterback, he led the Wildcats to two Class AAA state championships. UK wide receiver (1981-84) with 75 career catches for 935 yards and nine touchdowns. Played three professional seasons with the NFL’s Washington Redskins and the Toronto ­Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

Origin of nickname: Mother and ­grandfather gave him the nickname “Joker” because he and his father were named Joe, and they didn’t want both of them to come running when they called.


1988-96: Kentucky (graduate assistant, 1988-89; assistant recruiting ­coordinator, 1990; assistant coach-wide receivers, 1991-96)

1997-98: Cincinnati (assistant coach-wide receivers, 1997; assistant coach-defensive backs, 1998)

1999-2000: Minnesota (assistant coach-wide receivers)

2001: Notre Dame (assistant coach-wide receivers)

2002: South Carolina (assistant coach-wide receivers)

2003-present: Kentucky (recruiting coordinator/assistant coach-wide ­receivers, 2003-04; offensive coordinator/assistant coach-wide receivers, 2005-08; head coach-offense/assistant coach-wide ­receivers, 2009-present)


■ Assistant coach at UK under Jerry Claiborne from 1988-90 and Bill Curry from 1990-96 before returning to join Rich Brooks’ staff in 2003.

■ Became offensive coordinator in 2005. UK’s total offense and scoring average went up three straight seasons, culminating in a school-record 475 points in 2007.

■ Identified by and as one of the nation’s top recruiters.

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