UK Football

Coaches ready to put race in rearview

UK football coach Joker Phillips
UK football coach Joker Phillips

A pair of African-Americans, Joker Phillips and Charlie Strong, will lead the state's two prominent football programs onto the field to face each other Saturday when Kentucky and Louisville square off at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

The next weekend, another African-American coach, Willie Taggart, will bring the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers into Commonwealth Stadium to face Phillips' Wildcats.

The fact that the state of Kentucky has become a trendsetter in hiring African-American coaches has been well-documented. Phillips, Strong and Taggart represent exactly one-quarter of the 12 African-American head coaches currently in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision.

Strong declined to be interviewed for this article, but according to Phillips and Taggart, the best thing about the start of the season is that hopefully race won't be as big an issue anymore. Both admitted to growing tired of discussing that African-American coach angle.

"It's getting to that point," Taggart said. "I understand where we're at in the state of Kentucky as far as hiring coaches, and it speaks volumes. But I'll be glad when it gets to the point where people talk about us as just coaches. Hey, we've got a black president."

"The bottom line is we're all happy to have opportunities," Phillips said. "In this state, we never thought we'd see an African-American coach, period, at one of the schools. Now we've got one at three of the schools. I think that's helping to change the perception of Kentucky, and that's the main reason I came to school here in 1981, to change the perception that African-Americans couldn't have success at Kentucky. I think ... the people outside the state had a perception that Kentucky as an entire state was that way."

Phillips said the more success that African-Americans have at FBS programs, the less an issue it will become. He pointed to longtime Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson as an example.

"When John Thompson started laying the foundation by winning at Georgetown, then schools started hiring black basketball coaches, and now it's not a big deal at all," he said. "Nobody said that Auburn hired an African-American coach (Tony Barbee) and it was their first African-American coach in basketball. You never heard anything about that."

Phillips was an assistant for more than 22 years before finally getting his shot. In what can be viewed as another sign of progress, Taggart, who turned 34 on Friday and finished his playing career at Western in 1998, had to wait only half that long before getting his first head coaching gig.

Even though Taggart didn't have to wait as long as Phillips, he said he still had to show patience.

"It doesn't happen overnight," he said. "If it did, everybody would be doing it. You've got to prepare yourself. A lot of times when opportunities present themselves, guys aren't prepared, and that throws a wrench in the plans. Seeing that, I decided that when I had an interview I was going to be prepared and make it hard to tell me no."

Phillips and Taggart each have four African-American assistant coaches on their staffs, and Phillips also hired an African-American strength coach in Rock Oliver. But when Phillips was coming up the ranks, he said he was often the only black coach around.

"Coach (Bill) Curry always had two or three when I was here (at Kentucky) the first time," he recalled. "But after that, I was always the only one. Now you see three, four, five guys on a certain staff, but it hasn't always been like that. I always thought my first job I shouldn't have to interview people. You should have already been gathering names of people you'd like to have. Rock Oliver, David (Turner), these are guys I knew."

Both coaches had to deal with the "recruiter" label that often serves as a negative stigma for black coaches: You can go get players, but you're not quite ready to lead a program.

But Phillips and Taggart both said they embraced the role of a recruiter.

"I never got frustrated with it; I tried to use it," Phillips said. "I remember going to an interview for a job at one of the other places I've been, and I didn't get asked any football questions. Not one. It was all recruiting. It was a place I really wanted to be at, so I took the job. I called my wife and said, 'They don't know that they got a good coach, too. But I'll show 'em.' And that's my job, to show 'em. I came here, and I always wanted to be a recruiting coordinator because it's always good to be in charge of something. When you take charge of something and do a really good job then they'll say, 'He's organized, he's got control.' Then I became an offensive coordinator. That's why I came here as recruiting coordinator, because I thought it would lead to a chance to become the offensive coordinator and it did."

"I looked at it as an advantage," Taggart said. "Being able to recruit is the name of the game. You can scheme and get great coaches, but if you don't have the players, none of it matters. Everyone can coach. A lot of people can't recruit."

Phillips, Strong and Taggart are football coaches in a basketball state at schools that have been hoops powerhouses. But unlike past coaches who have come through the Bluegrass, Phillips and Taggart say they aren't threatened by basketball's popularity.

"I grew up a Kentucky basketball fan first; that's what got me interested in this university and program," Phillips said. "We try to use basketball to get young kids on campus. What young kid doesn't want to come to campus and watch John Wall? Or Brandon Knight or Terrence Jones? We can get them on campus and show them that we've got a nice campus, good people, good facilities. We can sell 'Operation Win' and the fact that we've been to four straight bowl games. We're using Coach Cal and those guys. Cal is supportive of us. He comes to practice. We've got to use them. Our recruits when they come to campus, they want to know if Coach Cal is going to be around, and he comes around."

Taggart said, "It's a great opportunity for us going Division I. We can change the perception of some things. Why not be good at both? At Western, we're striving to be great at everything. It all goes back to winning ball games. If you don't do that, it doesn't matter."