John Clay

John Clay: No reason to believe Joker can't fix what ails UK football

Joker Phillips led UK to its first losing season since 2005, topped off by a 27-10 loss to Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Joker Phillips led UK to its first losing season since 2005, topped off by a 27-10 loss to Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Keeping with my contrarian nature, I'm here to say some positive things about Joker Phillips.

Tuesday night, before the Kentucky-Auburn basketball game, it was Joker Phillips who showed up in the media room to say some positive things about Joker Phillips.

Or, well, about Kentucky football. The head coach said he felt good about things for next season. He insisted his Cats were "not that far away" from being wildly successful. He smiled that Joker smile.

This, no doubt, was to deflect a not-so-great thing. There has been plenty of lemon-sucking since Kentucky's 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday. The loss gift-wrapped UK's first losing season since 2005. In large part, the negatives have been laid at the feet of Phillips.

"I understand that," the coach said Tuesday.

So here's something to remember: Hal Mumme went 5-6 in his first UK season, and everyone cheered. Joker Phillips went 6-7, and quite a few have booed. One year doesn't make a career.

Here's something else: Bowl results are overrated.

Guess which team was thumped by Connecticut in the 2009 Birmingham bowl?

That would be the South Carolina Gamecocks.

What did South Carolina do in 2010? It beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee on the way to a 5-3 conference record and an SEC East title.

One of its three losses: Kentucky.

Here's another question: What were the previous jobs of the two coaches in Monday night's BCS title game?

Gene Chizik was 5-19 in two seasons as head coach at Iowa State before coming to Auburn. Before that, Chizik was defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas. This was his fourth year as a head coach, his second at Auburn.

Chip Kelly was offensive coordinator at Oregon before becoming head coach of the Ducks last season. Previously, he had been the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. Not head coach. Offensive coordinator. This was his second year as a head coach.

So much for those who believe Kentucky's only grid answer is to throw big money at a "name" coach with a successful track record.

That worked for Kentucky basketball with John Calipari. That worked for Alabama football with Nick Saban. Those are the exceptions that prove the rule, however.

Kentucky basketball is not Kentucky football. You would have a harder time attracting a "name" coach to Kentucky football. And for Kentucky basketball, given the disaster that was Billy Gillispie, it may well be that the demand and expectations of a program require a marquee name with experienced success.

Now guess the name of the coach who originally got the Oregon program up and running?

It's the same coach who in 1994 took the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl since 1958, who paved the way for the next head coach to be offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti, who in turn named Kelly as head coach.

Hint: It's the same coach who beat Chizik and Auburn last season at Auburn.

That would be Rich Brooks, the man who convinced Mitch Barnhart to make Phillips his coach-in-waiting in the first place. It was Brooks who returned Kentucky to bowl eligibility. It was Brooks who thought enough of Phillips to hand him the steering wheel.

Was Phillips' first season disappointing? Yes. With Tennessee, Florida and Georgia all suffering off seasons, did Kentucky miss a golden opportunity for advancement? Absolutely. Are there issues that need to be fixed? You bet.

But there is no reason to believe Phillips can't fix them. One frustrating season doesn't change that. Nor does one bothersome bowl result. One year doesn't make a career.

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