UK Football

Mark Story: Are critical fans being screened off Joker Phillips' radio show?

Kentucky fans threw the South Carolina football out of the stadium after the ball went into the stands during the Kentucky-South Carolina game on Saturday.
Kentucky fans threw the South Carolina football out of the stadium after the ball went into the stands during the Kentucky-South Carolina game on Saturday. Herald-Leader

On the Monday following Kentucky's deflating 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky, Chris Furnish decided to call Joker Phillips' weekly radio show.

A Morehead resident, Furnish is a big UK football fan who says he calls the Wildcats head coach's radio show "four to five times" each year.

But following Kentucky's defeat to Western — which turned the heat up dramatically beneath the coaching seat of Phillips — Furnish says something occurred that had never happened before.

The radio show's call screener would not let him on the air.

Furnish says he told the screener he had a recruiting question and a comment. The screener told him, Furnish said, "'To be more specific.'"

So Furnish says he told the call screener he wanted to ask about "the lack of 4- and 5-star recruits on (UK's) team compared to the rest of the SEC and how it makes it impossible to compete," he said.

When the call screener asked him what his comment was going to be, Furnish says he replied he was going to ask Phillips how the coach could be satisfied with only matching the physicality of WKU, a Sun Belt Conference team?

Furnish was stunned when the screener told him "'I am not going to be able to let you through. It sounds like you are going to be a little tough on the coach.'"

One way you can always tell when a major Kentucky coach is under fan fire is that there is a controversy over whether critical UK backers have access to the coach's radio call-in show. It was true with Bill Curry in the early 1990s and again with Tubby Smith late in his tenure.

So are UK and/or IMG College, the company that holds the contractual rights to Kentucky's radio broadcasts, now shielding Phillips from direct fan criticism?

Tom Leach, the UK football radio play-by-play voice and host of Phillips' call-in show, says "we are not that I know of screening out (critical) calls."

However, Leach notes that all UK radio broadcasts are now produced from the headquarters of IMG College in Winston-Salem, N.C. "They hand me a card with the names and hometowns of the next three callers," Leach said. "I'm not in any means involved in setting the policies of how the show is produced."

Chris Ferris, the vice-president of the Audio Division for IMG College, said he could not address specifically how callers to Phillips' show were being filtered because he had not spoken to the screeners involved.

"What we usually do, in general terms, is ask people their name, where they are from and whether their question pertains to football," Ferris said. "We're not going to let people make personal attacks or statements not directly related to the football game."

Personally, I don't think anyone has a right to go on the radio and be abusive toward a coach. But I do think if coaches are going to accept the (very big) money for appearing on the shows, they ought to take calls from even the most critical fans as long as the latter conduct themselves with decorum.

Paul Rogers, University of Louisville radio play-by-play man, says there is a built-in tension for call-in show hosts and producers in situations where fan bases are unhappy with coaches. Most recently at U of L, that scenario surrounded former Cardinals football coach Steve Kragthorpe, who was fired in 2009 after three unhappy seasons.

"When things are going bad, you are always on edge that somebody is going to call in and call the coach an idiot or something worse," Rogers says. "With Steve, off the top of my head, I don't remember anything especially nasty. It became more indifference to the (call-in) show than anger by the end."

This year, current U of L head man Charlie Strong will not face any unhappy callers no matter how the Louisville football season turns out — because the Cardinals coach no longer takes calls on his show.

Instead, questions are submitted by email, through the social media or in writing from the live audience that attends Strong's weekly show at a Louisville eatery. "(Not taking calls) didn't have anything to do with criticism, we just thought it would make for a more streamlined radio show," Rogers said.

Morehead's Furnish says the call screener that would not let him speak to Joker Phillips following UK's loss to WKU told him "'The university and the coach are trying to keep it as positive as possible. Thanks for calling, though.'"

The irony, Furnish says, was that he intended his call to be more sympathetic toward Phillips than attacking.

Once the call was rejected, Furnish says he hung up and told his wife what had happened.

"She laughed," he says.