UK Football

Mark Story: A day like no other for Kentucky's Phillips to build on

Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips was all smiles after the Wildcats ended a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee on Nov. 26. There were rumors about Phillips' job security before the game.
Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips was all smiles after the Wildcats ended a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee on Nov. 26. There were rumors about Phillips' job security before the game. Amy Wallot

Has any major University of Kentucky sports coach ever had a day quite like Joker Phillips had Saturday?

For the final game of his second season as UK head football coach, Phillips drove to Commonwealth Stadium to face Tennessee with a good percentage of the Kentucky fan base calling for his job.

When UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced on the UK Radio Network pre-game show that Phillips would be back in 2012, one enraged UK backer tweeted that the AD had (figuratively) given Cats fans the bird.

Who would have dreamed that Phillips was on the verge of directing one of the most improbable, exhilarating victories in University of Kentucky sports history?

Using wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback because Kentucky had no other eligible QB healthy enough to play, UK somehow found a way to drive a stake through the heart of The Streak.

After 26 agonizing losses in a row, say it loud and say it proud: Kentucky 10, Tennessee 7.

In football.

The coach who gave The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan the victory over the one team they most yearned to beat is the same one Cats backers had been savaging on Internet message boards and talk radio shows all week.

Afterward, Phillips choked back emotion.

"I was asked earlier how much it meant to me to break the streak as the head coach," Phillips said. "It doesn't mean much to me, to break the streak, it really doesn't. What means more to me is the joy (of) those seniors, the memories that those guys will have. That means more to me than anything."

What memories there will be.

Start with Roark, the 6-foot-5, 214-pound senior, who began this year at wide receiver seemingly afflicted with an acute case of the drops.

When injured UK quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton seemed unlikely to play, Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders drew up a game plan built around Roark running the read-option out of the shotgun formation.

Roark hadn't played quarterback since he was a senior at North Cobb High School in his native Georgia. Yet catching UT by surprise, Roark and UK drove 62 yards on 15 plays on their first possession of the game to set up a 24-yard Craig McIntosh field goal.

That was all the scoring in the game until early in the fourth period. Then, after a Tennessee scoring threat went awry at the UK 8 due to a mishandled shotgun snap, Roark marched the Cats 77 yards in eight plays.

The game-winning play came on a third-and-12 from the UT 33. Roark rolled right on a bootleg, tucked the ball away, broke two tackles and didn't stop until he was at the UT 7.

Two plays later, CoShik Williams ran in a 6-yard touchdown. Suddenly, the Cats (5-7, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) had a 10-0 lead.

Roark would finish with Tim Tebow-like numbers: only 4-of-6 passing for 15 yards, but 124 yards rushing on 24 tries.

"I never expected to do anything like that," he said.

Now, it was up to the Kentucky defense to make the lead stand up.

On its first possession after Williams' TD, Tennessee got on the board with a 53-yard touchdown bomb from Tyler Bray to Rajion Neal.

The 'oh no, here we go again feeling' filled Commonwealth.

But the same Kentucky defense that was strafed for 54 points at South Carolina would not let this game get away. Four times UT had the ball with a chance to go ahead or tie in the final period; four times Winston Guy, Danny Trevathan, Alvin Dupree and Co. slammed the door.

"It was just the way we played all year, wasn't it," deadpanned UK co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter.

When Cats senior Taiedo Smith picked off a Bray pass on a fourth-and-17 with 1:34 left in the game, a Commonwealth Stadium gathering of 59,855 fell briefly quiet, then went all-out delirious.

Kentucky was going to beat Tennessee.

With everything else that it meant, it made Phillips the coach who slayed the streak.

"We wanted to get this for him," said Trevathan. "It's been a long season for him. A lot of people are against him. But we're behind him. We love that guy."

After two years, Phillips stands 11-14 as UK head man. On his watch, UK's streaks of five straight bowls, four straight winning seasons and four consecutive wins over Louisville have all ended.

"Nobody is happy with the way the season (went), especially us," Phillips said. "... but we are willing to do whatever we have to do to get it corrected."

Even without the signature moment of beating UT, Barnhart's announcement that Phillips would return next season was the right call. Absent extraordinary circumstances, you don't fire coaches after only two years.

Beating Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC) certainly makes the UK AD's call go down a little better, though. Joker is now the coach who both ended UK's oh-for-all-eternity standing against Steve Spurrier (2010) and who finally made Rocky Top stop.

"I love the guy," Barnhart said of Phillips afterward. "I love what it means to him, that he loves Kentucky and how much this program means to him and how much he cares about getting it going to a spot where everybody can be proud of it."

Whatever happens going forward, Phillips certainly had UK football in a place of pride late Saturday afternoon.

The coach who came to Commonwealth with people calling for his job left after receiving a Gatorade bath, fighting through a jubilant crowd that rushed the field and after recording a victory that will live in Kentucky Wildcats lore for all time.

What a wild day for Joker Phillips, the day The Streak finally died.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.

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