Joker on hot seat, Strong tempering expectations

Annual Governor’s Cup game between Louisville and Kentucky set for Sept. 2 at Cardinal Stadium

By Brian Rickerd Published:

SIMPSONVILLE – University of Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips is hoping the heated seat feature on his coaching chair is removed very soon, while University of Louisville coach Charlie Strong is trying to temper expectations a tad as his Cardinals prepare to open the season with Phillips’ Wildcats on Sept. 2 in Louisville (3:30 on ESPN).

That’s what I got out of Thursday’s annual Governor’s Cup luncheon held at the Cardinal Club, marking the start of the countdown towards the opener for these two rivals.

And, to be entirely accurate, I’m merely speculating on what Phillips is really thinking about what some may view as his precarious coaching position at UK, because he understandably backs away from the subject.

Asked if the fans are quicker these days to push panic buttons when things don’t go right for their team, Phillips said, “That’s the day and age that we’re in.”

And then Phillips added quickly –- as quickly as Randall Cobb could have scored on that crucial third-and-5 play against Tennessee a few years back if only Phillips had called his number: “We’ve got good fan support, though. We were 27th in the country in attendance last year. We’ve been in the top 30 for the last 15 years. So we’ve got really good fan support.”

Asked what worries him most about this Kentucky team, Phillips said quickly – as quickly as Tennessee’s great cornerback/safety Eric Berry busted through Derrick Locke’s block and tackled the guy Phillips chose to carry the football instead of Cobb on that crucial third-and-5 play against Tennessee a few years back – then freshman Morgan Newton: “I don’t worry. I don’t have TIME to worry. My time needs to be put on making sure we put a productive product on the field.

“But I’m excited with the development of some of our young kids,” he added. “We’re excited about making sure we get those guys in the right positions.”

Louisville’s Strong, meanwhile, is riding a fine line between encouraging his Cardinals to believe – as so many people apparently do – that they are contenders, not pretenders, while not letting all the hype get to their heads.

“When you haven’t been consistent in winning, you just don’t really know where you are with your football team because you just don’t know how they are going to come out,” said Strong, who – like Phillips – is heading into his third season as a head coach.

“A lot of times they get complacent, and I don’t know why they ever get complacent, but they start listening to what everybody says. What guys have to understand is you still have to work, and you have to prove it on the football field.”

Strong says he hopes the experience on his coaching staff will help his players keep level heads.

“I hope the experience on our coaching staff can carry over to our players not to get cocky,” Strong said. “Just go work. You got yourself to this point. Why are you favored to win a conference, or finish second or third? Because of the work you have put into it. So let’s make sure you do not lose sight of that.”

There wasn’t much substance coming out of the comments by both Strong and Phillips here Thursday, which is usually the case in such public sessions. Coaches these days are so vanilla in the public eye, handling 99 percent of the questions like a politician would.

That isn’t always true of their players, of course. There’s been some trash talk coming out of both the UK and Louisville camps this offseason, from the players, though Phillips also backed away from that negativism Thursday.

“We don’t get into that,” he said, speaking presumably of his Wildcats. “I respect this game of football. It does so much for many of us. And I respect this rivalry. I’m a Kentuckian, and I’m just so happy that we play. For many years, we didn’t.”

Strong lightened the mood when he touched on the same subject:

“It’s usually guys that don’t even play that do all the talking, when they should just shut up,” said Strong, who was apparently happy with the media turnout on Thursday. “Because you have to play the game. The game is going to come to you, so you don’t need to put anything out there. Just worry about your team.”

Asked if he monitors the twitter talk of his players, Strong said, to laughter: “I say it all the time, social media is going to be the downfall of society ... people tweeting. You don’t realize that once you tweet, it’s there and it’s never going to go away. People say, ‘Well, I can take it off.’ No, once it’s posted, it’s posted.

“We just have to be smart in what we say and what we do.”

GOVERNOR’S CUP NOTES: Former athletes and coaches who contributed to the football programs at Kentucky and Louisville are honored each summer at this luncheon. This year’s honorees from UK are Fran Curci, Sonny Collins and Harry Jones, and from Louisville, it’s Dwayne Woodruff, Lee Corso and Browning Nagle.

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