I feel a little sorry for Joker Phillips.
For the ex-Wildcats wide receiver and longtime Kentucky assistant, being head football coach at the University of Kentucky is his dream job. Yet Phillips got his chance to be head coach at his alma mater at a particularly challenging time.
Coming into the 2010 season, Kentucky had won at least seven regular-season games three times in the past four years. For Phillips to be perceived as succeeding as UK coach, he needs to do better than that.
"We don't want to be a 6-6, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5 football program," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said Saturday after UK's 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. "We want to grow our program."
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For Phillips to take Kentucky football "to the next level," he needs to win at least eight games in a regular season. Which UK has done exactly one time — 1984 — in the last 30 years.
The general consensus after Kentucky laid an egg against Pitt to finish 6-7 is that Phillips' first season was disappointing. No argument here, although it should be noted UK was favored to win only five times this season and actually won six games.
There have been many times when a Kentucky coach who got the Cats to a bowl game in his first year would have had a statue erected outside Commonwealth Stadium. Because of the timing of when Phillips got the UK job, the Internet message boards are instead filled with pleas for his dismissal.
"Joker did fine. He did fine," Barnhart said Saturday of the coach's first year. "It was a learning process for him. He was a head coach for the first time this year. It was no different than a guy who is a starting quarterback for the first time. It moves quickly. All of a sudden, the headset is on you. You think you've got it all figured out, but all of a sudden the head coach is you and you've got to make the tough calls. And Joker was willing to do that."
Before next season, there are three more "tough calls" Phillips needs to make to survive and thrive in his dream job.
3.) End the "first-quarter" suspension policy
Throughout the season, Phillips disciplined players for things like missing team meetings by holding them out of the first quarter of games. He said it was because, in his experience, running players at 5 a.m. wasn't really punishment for well-conditioned college athletes.
This is an argument in favor of alternate punishment and not for relaxing discipline, but he should reconsider that.
The one-quarter suspension created an impression of turmoil within the Kentucky program that I think was exaggerated, especially in comparison to the arrest blotters compiled by players at some other SEC schools. It also caused disruption early in games that hurt the UK team more than the rules breaker.
I have a hard time believing that, say, five early-morning disciplinary sessions with the rugged Kentucky strength coach Rock Oliver wouldn't get the attention of players who violate relatively minor team rules.
2.) Hire an expe rienced special teams coach
Phillips dismissed former special teams coach Steve Ortmayer last summer and brought in Greg Nord as a replacement. The personable Nord, a former aide at both UK and Louisville, has deep recruiting ties in the commonwealth but had never been in charge of special teams before.
It showed. Bad plays in the kicking game killed the Cats in the bowl and were a major issue all season.
There is no current staff opening at Kentucky, but even if it means reassigning an assistant coach to an administrative role, Phillips has to get a veteran special teams coach in place.
At UK, the margin of error is too thin to surmount repeated special-team miscues.
1.) Have a truly open quarterback competition
Kentucky called plays in the BBVA Compass Bowl as if it considered Morgan Newton to be a Cam Newton-style quarterback.
The Indiana product may have been a dual-threat player in high school but there is zero evidence that called running plays for Morgan Newton are going to work against major college foes. Against Pitt on Saturday and in eight games last season, Newton did not look elusive or fast enough to avoid defenders, nor does he seem powerful enough to run through linebackers and defensive linemen.
For that reason, the quarterback Kentucky goes with next season should be the best pocket passer. Period. I thought Newton looked marginally improved in that aspect Saturday over 2009, but he remains very much a work in progress both in terms of throwing accuracy and reading defenses.
All of which is why the UK offensive brain trust needs to go into spring practice with a truly open mind among Newton, sophomore-to-be Ryan Mossakowski and even true freshman Maxwell Smith.