UK Football

Mark Story: Which coach needs it more, Strong or Phillips?

Kentucky coach Joker Phillips and Louisville coach Charlie Strong shook hands after the game as Kentucky defeated Louisville 23-16  in Papa Johns Stadium  on Saturday  September 4, 2010 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips and Louisville coach Charlie Strong shook hands after the game as Kentucky defeated Louisville 23-16 in Papa Johns Stadium on Saturday September 4, 2010 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff.

Let's play a name game:

Coach A is in his second year as a college football head man. On his résumé, he has a win over his school's archrival. He beat a top-10 team and, in doing so, the one coach in all of college football his fan base most yearned to beat.

He's never lost to a team from outside a BCS conference. In his first year, he went to a minor bowl game and lost it. Through two games of year two, he now stands 8-7 overall.

Coach B is in his second year as a college football head man. On his résumé, he lost to his school's archrival. He lost to both the conference foes his fan base most yearns to beat.

He has lost a home game to a team from outside a BCS conference. In his first year, he went to a minor bowl game and won it. Through two games of year two, he now stands 8-7 overall.

Here's our question: Which coach should be held in higher regard by their school's fan base?

Coach A, right?

Now, as I'm sure you've surmised, Coach A is Kentucky's Joker Phillips and Coach B is Louisville's Charlie Strong.

In the real world, it seems inarguable that Strong is the coach with much higher standing among U of L fans than Phillips enjoys within the Kingdom of the Blue.

On the week when UK and U of L will contest the Governor's Cup rivalry for the 18th time in the modern history of the series, the question on the floor this morning is 'Which coach needs victory the most?'

It is fascinating how different the perceptions are of two football coaches who have the same overall record.

Interestingly for a guy who played at Kentucky, spent two separate stints as an assistant at UK and who was coordinator for two of the best seasons of offense (2006 and '07) in school history, Phillips doesn't seem to have much good will in his account at the First National Bank of Big Blue.

Part of Phillips' problem is that he bought the stock "UK football" when it was at a very high price. When he inherited the Wildcats coaching job when Rich Brooks retired following the 2009 season, Kentucky had gone to four straight bowl games and had four straight regular seasons in which it had won, in order, 7, 7, 6 and 7 games.

For Phillips to get UK football to the proverbial next level, he has to consistently get the Wildcats to eight- or nine-win regular seasons. As I've noted before, Kentucky has won eight games in a regular football season three times since Bear Bryant left after the 1953 season.

In retrospect it would have been better for Phillips, as an aspiring UK head coach, to have left Lexington after the 2007 season for a job as an offensive coordinator at a more traditional football power rather than accept a head-coach-in-waiting designation.

Being a HCIW is a trap. If Kentucky in 2011 seems to have a glaring lack of offensive playmakers on its roster (and it does), Phillips can't deflect the blame onto the recruiting of the prior coaching staff since he was on it. Yet he doesn't get credit for the success that preceded his becoming head coach because that accrues to Brooks.

Up I-64, Strong is in almost the exact opposite position in the perception game.

He inherited the Louisville football program at a low ebb after the tumultuous three-year Steve Kragthorpe era. Coming from a spot as co-defensive coordinator on Urban Meyer's national-titles winning staff at Florida, Strong carries that Mighty Gator street cred.

Strong did a good job in his first year at U of L. A senior-laden team that won four games the season before got to six victories in 2010, then won a bowl. The Cards appeared better organized, more confident and played physically tougher.

It is interesting that the "buy-in" on Strong among U of L backers didn't seem to diminish when the coach made a huge strategic blunder — going for it on a 4th-and-inches play at the 4-yard line in overtime against South Florida and failing, which allowed the Bulls to win the game on a field goal — that cost his team a game.

Nor has the fact that Strong's recruiting coordinator, Clint Hurtt, turned up prominently in the Yahoo! Sports investigation of alleged NCAA violations in the Miami Hurricanes football program (where Hurtt is a former assistant) seemed to remove any luster from the head Card.

So which coach needs to win more Saturday night?

At some point, even "Teflon Charlie" has to start beating the teams his fan base hates. A year ago, he went oh-for-Kentucky, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Still, because he has so much credibility banked with his fan base, Strong doesn't face a must-win with UK until 2012, when he would be in his third year and the Cats visit Louisville.

For the 2011 renewal, Joker Phillips is the coach who needs to win the Governor's Cup the most.

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