When it was announced that Charlotte would visit the Kentucky Wildcats to play football in 2015, 49ers offensive line coach Phillip Ratliff was stoked.
“He called me up, excited,” former UK wide receiver Gerad Parker said. “He was asking me things about logistics and stuff in Lexington. It was a big thing for him.”
As kids growing up in Eastern Kentucky, Brian Ratliff says he and his younger brother spent many a UK game parked in front of their family’s television.
“It being UK, we were more basketball fans than football,” Brian Ratliff said. “But we were big Kentucky fans. This game, it would have been huge for my brother.”
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The Kentucky homecoming Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium Phillip Ratliff had so looked forward to will not be.
Last Aug. 9, the former Lawrence County High School and Marshall University football standout died in a Hickory, N.C., hospital. The married father of two’s death came less than a week after he had experienced a significant “cardiac event.”
Phillip Ratliff was 44.
A rural, Eastern Kentucky county with a population of some 15,804, Lawrence County has produced a fairly remarkable 21st century football coaching tree.
Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Jason Michael is a former Lawrence County quarterback. Parker, an ex-Lawrence County wideout, is Purdue’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. Morehead State defensive coordinator Dontae Wright played linebacker at the Louisa school.
Alan Short, Lawrence County High School’s current football offensive coordinator, says all that started with Phillip Ratliff.
“We’d had other guys who went to college, but Phillip was the guy who stuck it out, walked through the line at Senior Day,” Short said. “I can’t tell you how big an impact that had on people younger than him like me growing up in Lawrence County.”
In the late 1980s, Ratliff was a standout football lineman at Lawrence County. “He took some visits to UK,” Brian Ratliff said. “That didn’t work out and Marshall turned out to be the perfect fit for him.”
A two-time All-America lineman for the Thundering Herd, Ratliff was captain of the 1992 Marshall team that won the Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship.
Intent on pursuing a coaching career, Ratliff got started at home in Lawrence County. In football, he served as defensive coordinator under head coach Chuke Williams. Ratliff also had a stint as head basketball coach for the Bulldogs.
“Chuke was an offensive-minded coach who really didn’t care that much about the defense,” says Trent Steiner, the head boys’ basketball coach at Simon Kenton High School, who went to high school with Ratliff and then coached with him at Lawrence County.
“Phillip was the defensive coordinator, and Chuke put his defense in bad positions a lot. They used to go back and forth pretty good. But the thing with Phil was, nobody could stay mad at him.”
On the night of Nov. 21, 1997, Michael was the quarterback, Parker a wide receiver and Ratliff was coaching the defense when Lawrence County ended Breathitt County’s 42-game winning streak in the Class 2A playoffs with a 36-28 victory.
After 10 years as a high school coach, Ratliff returned to Marshall as a football graduate assistant. He then went to James Madison as an assistant for two years before returning to Marshall in 2006 as tight ends coach.
Many figured the former Thundering Herd standout would be a lifer on the Marshall staff. When Charlotte hired Brad Lambert, a Herd assistant when Ratliff was a player, to start a new college football program he hired Ratliff in 2012 as his offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.
“I think Phillip saw it as a chance to be more than a tight ends coach,” Parker says. “He wanted to be a head coach, really he wanted to be the head coach at Marshall. He saw Charlotte as a step toward that.”
When Charlotte (2-8) comes to Lexington to face UK (4-6), the 49ers players will be wearing “PR1” helmet stickers to honor the man who recruited many of them to the new football program.
“I can’t say enough about Charlotte and the job the university has done honoring Phil,” Parker says.
On Nov. 12, which would have been Ratliff’s 45th birthday, Charlotte had a “Random Acts of Kindness for Phil” day. Using the Twitter hashtag #RAK4Phil, people described what they did for others to honor Ratliff.
One woman tweeted she gave a stranger a $15 Chick-fil-A gift card. A basketball coach tweeted he let his players out of running wind sprints. Parker bought lunch for all of Purdue’s football staff workers.
Charlotte assistant athletic director Tom Whitestone says the school got word from Ratliff’s wife Jenni and children Haley and Dylan “that looking on Twitter and seeing what people were doing made a day that would have been very difficult for them a little better,” he said.
On Saturday night, were Phillip Ratliff coaching, there would have been a small caravan from Louisa to Lexington for the football game.
Instead, Brian Ratliff says emotions are too raw for Phil’s parents, Darrell and Sharon Ratliff, to come to Commonwealth Stadium.
His voice breaking, Brian Ratliff said he wasn’t sure whether he could come watch the game his younger brother so wanted to coach in, either.
“We miss him so much,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s just hard.”
Charlotte at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)