John Clay

John Clay: Win means little but still meaningful to players

For everything they've gone through this season, they deserved a nice night.

After all, you think this season has been no fun for you, Kentucky football fan.

What about the players?

You think it is fun getting up in the morning and trudging off to practice after losing by 40 points to Vanderbilt?

You think it is easy when the crowds that come to watch you could fit inside Rupp Arena?

You think it's easy to go to class facing your classmates knowing what they're thinking, or even saying, after a 42-point loss at Arkansas in a game that was shortened by weather for more than a quarter?

You think it was fun to see your head coach fired because of what happened while you were on the field?

For all that, these players needed an enjoyable evening.

That's what they got on a Saturday Senior Night, the Cats ending the home campaign of what has been a difficult season with an easy 34-3 win over Samford.

It didn't really matter that once again the Commonwealth Stadium stands were mostly empty and that the opponent was from the Football Championship Subdivision It didn't really matter that it was just the second win in 11 games.

It was a win, the sweet taste of victory, for the first time since the Kent State game way back on Sept. 8.

Better yet, it was a win in the final home game of the season, the final home game of the Joker Phillips era.

At game's end, senior offensive linemen Larry Warford and Matt Smith carried Phillips off the field on their shoulders.

Taylor Wyndam, the senior defensive end, cooked up the idea. And Phillips fought the gesture at first, telling the players he didn't want the ride.

"He poured his heart and soul out into this program. He's a champion in our hearts. He means everything to us," said Warford. "We were going to force him to get on our shoulders because that's what he means to us."

As for Phillips himself, the head coach said afterward he was "numb to it all" that he knows it is "time to go" that he is confident he will coach somewhere again, that it has been a grind.

"I think I'm gonna sleep," he said, smiling.

So when he was going through his game-day routine, some asked, did he stop and think that this was his final home game?

"Not really," said the coach. "I didn't remember that I packed my black suit. I was like, 'Damn, I'm not going to a funeral."

This game was too happy, too joyful to be a funeral.

"To win feels great," said linebacker Avery Williamson. "It's been a long time since Kent (State)."

"It's been such a long time," said Warford. "I can't say how much I appreciate these young guys for going out to practice, for having good practices and for being willing to go out and that showed up in the game. That means everything to us right now."

Football is a hard enough game to play as is. Think of how hard it is to play when you're losing.

But this was a win, a win for the seniors, a win for the departing staff.

While trying to downplay the sentimental side, Phillips did admit it was a special scene in the locker room afterward, watching the seniors, the ones he came back to coach these final two games after being told he was being relieved of his duties at year's end.

"This is a game of emotions, it is," he said. "You get to see the emotions come out. Many of them have only one game left they will put a uniform on. ... I'm glad I was able to experience it with the seniors, yes."

The season isn't over, of course. There is one more game.

There is still next Saturday at Tennessee, which got its big orange doors blown off 41-18 at Vanderbilt on Saturday night.

Surely the biggest win in Phillips' tenure was the win over Tennessee a year ago.

For Kentucky's players, a second straight season-ending win over the Vols would surely be twice as nice.

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