UK Football

Mark Story: Joker must channel Brooks to revitalize UK football

Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said Monday his team looked down a day after losing to Louisville.
Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said Monday his team looked down a day after losing to Louisville.

We're about to find out a lot about Joker Phillips as a head coach.

The most impressive thing Rich Brooks achieved at Kentucky was that, in spite of three and a half years of losing and unrelenting negativity around the program, the coach ultimately did not lose the belief of his players.

After that horrid 49-0 loss at LSU midway through the 2006 season, UK's football fortunes turned and Brooks launched UK on its current streak of five straight bowls.

We're about to find out if Phillips can surmount a similar test by fire.

Following Kentucky's dispiriting 24-17 loss Saturday to Louisville, the atmosphere in the UK fan base toward its football program ranges from apathy to anger.

Of the two, the apathy is worse.

The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan has lived for decades now on hope of a better day ahead. The problem for Phillips is that there doesn't seem to be much belief in the public mind that the former Wildcats wide receiver and longtime Kentucky assistant coach can lead UK football to a better day.

Let's be clear on one thing: It's ridiculous to be calling for the job of a head coach three games into his second season. That is especially true when that coach has an overall record of 8-8 in one of the tougher coaching positions in big-time college football.

Which is not to say that Phillips doesn't deserve some of the criticism coming his way since U of L claimed the Governor's Cup for the first time since 2006.

Saturday's was a brutal loss for Kentucky.

It came in a game in which UK had the more experienced quarterback, the more experienced offensive line and a defense that returned its top 11 tacklers from the season before.

It came against a Louisville that lost 25 seniors from its 7-6 team a year ago. The Cardinals played a true freshman QB most of the way. The U of L offensive line had five new starters from a season ago, including two freshmen.

Yet it was the Louisville defense, not the more experienced UK D, that had a stunning 14 tackles for loss in the game. It was the U of L offensive line, not the more heralded Kentucky one, that allowed its offense to control the ball on the ground (U of L outrushed Kentucky a whopping 181-35).

It was the Louisville offense, with freshman Teddy Bridgewater at the controls for most of the game, that played without committing a turnover (UK had only one turnover, but it was a lost fumble that negated a scoring chance).

Even without departed star playmakers Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke — the difference between UK and U of L in Cats' victories over the Cards in 2009 and '10 — Saturday's was a game that Kentucky should have won.

UK now faces a brutal three-game stretch starting with Florida, followed by at LSU and at South Carolina. One wonders if even blood relatives of Cats coaches and players give the Cats any chance in those three.

So we're going to find out about Joker.

Can he hold his team together amid the sea of negativity that figures to swirl in these next three weeks? Phillips says he learned in his days as an assistant from watching Brooks.

"I watched that old guy go through the same thing, how he handled it, how he reacted to it," Phillips said of Brooks at his Monday news conference. "We're trying to do it the same way."

As bad as Kentucky has looked so far, it is not impossible to win four more games and get to the six victories it would take to extend the Cats' bowl streak to six years. Get through the next three, there are some possible W's at the end of the UK schedule.

For a program with as little recent history of sustained football success as Kentucky, maintaining any positive achievement matters.

Last year, UK and Phillips lost what had been a string of four straight winning seasons by turning in the clunker against Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl to finish 6-7. Last Saturday, UK and Phillips lost what had been a streak of four straight victories over Kentucky's archrival.

The bowl streak is the remaining symbol of Kentucky football improvement.

To keep even that alive, UK has to improve. Over the course of a long season, well-coached teams are known to do that.

By midway through the 2006 season, most of the fans and media (present writer included) had long since written off Brooks and his program. The old coach navigated through all that adversity and came out a winner on the other side.

We're about to see if Joker Phillips has what it takes to do the same.

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