Uncertain future

Overtime loss to WKU leaves Joker on the outs with fans

By Brian Rickerd Published:

LEXINGTON – Some 36 hours after the little engine that could – Western Kentucky – stunned the Kentucky Wildcats (the bigger engine that can only on rare occasions), 32-31, at Commonwealth Stadium, I still find myself conflicted about the future of UK football.

That conflict includes my feelings about the fate of head coach Joker Phillips.

I remain less than 100 percent certain that Phillips cannot succeed as the coach of the Wildcats. After a couple dry recruiting years (granted, largely Phillips’ fault…it’s his program…I get that), I see a lot of good, young talent on this Kentucky team, even on the defensive side.

And I firmly believe that if this were, say, 25 years ago, Phillips would probably get two-three more years to see this through.

But dinosaur though I may be at age 54, I understand that a lot has changed in the last quarter century. And one of those changes is that patience is nearly extinct from the dictionary. It’s instant gratification. Now.

I’m often as guilty as anybody. Heck, I find myself frequently annoyed when my microwave oven doesn’t heat my coffee fast enough. And that’s not nearly as important an issue as football. Or who is going to coach your team.

So, with that in mind, there certainly was an air of finality Saturday night when Western Kentucky quarterback Kawaun Jakes scampered across the goal line to give the 2-1 Hilltoppers the two-point conversion and the win over the Wildcats in overtime.

Jakes’ feet closed the door on patience in the Kentucky fan base. As if there wasn’t enough blood in the water when it comes to the fans’ taste for Phillips, it’s positively a gusher now.

And isn’t it funny how fine the line can be? Had WKU failed to convert that two-point conversion, we’re having a different conversation now, so to speak. I understand that UK fans wouldn’t break out party hats over a close win over Western Kentucky, but I still believe you’d find more fans with an open mind about Joker.

It feels obvious that the minds of the fans are firmly shut now, and with Kentucky’s Southeastern Conference slate set to begin Saturday at Florida (12:21 p.m. on WKYT), I don’t see the door re-opening.

Following the name-your-score loss to the resurgent Gators, Kentucky returns home to face South Carolina and Mississippi State.

Then follows a trip to Arkansas – and boy what an electric atmosphere THAT promises to be – then home to Georgia, at Missouri…

It’s an ugly, ugly picture, no doubt about it. Because it is pretty clear that if the Wildcats are going to allow Louisville and Western to physically dominate them (though Phillips says his team physically matched WKU – well, hip, hip hooray for that) what will the Floridas, South Carolinas and Georgias of the world do?

Throughout preseason camp, Phillips talked over and over and over about the attitude of his players. He said these Wildcats are a family to end all families, practically the football equivalent of Ozzie and Harriett.

And I rolled my eyes as I always do when I hear that because after some 35 years in this business, I can tell you that I have heard those very same words from coaches at all levels of the sport, every season. Every single year.

It’s easy, you see, to feel like family when your idea of adversity is a hard preseason practice, followed by a team swim party, or a visit from the ice cream truck. It’s another when you start 1-2 and rate only as the third best football team in a basketball state.

Let’s see how this “We Are Family” theme flies in about six weeks after this murderer’s row of SEC opponents.

Somewhere along the way we’ll see what kind of leaders these Wildcats have … if they are strong enough, in other words, to carry the day when all the players who aren’t seeing playing time right now look at a few 56-14 kind of losses and wonder, “Hey, why can’t I get in the game?”

Moving on, finally, to the question of the day: Who will be the next UK coach in the likely scenario that Phillips is not able to hang on to his job?

I would urge you to skip the knee jerk emotional reaction about that and try, oh please try – hard as that is – to ponder that reality.

I can say this for sure: It won’t be Urban Meyer or Nick Saban.

It’s astonishing to hear the UK fans who believe that getting the right coach is only a matter of throwing enough money at the guy.

That ignores the fact that if there is a coach out there deserving of, say, $5 million a year, that coach will NOT take a job at Kentucky because programs like Tennessee and Arkansas will snap up a coach like that.

UK is going to have to get very lucky with a hot shot assistant from a place like Alabama, Southern Cal, Oregon – a national power in other words – or try to get someone with a slightly quirky approach, like Washington State’s Mike Leach, or an ex coach/now TV guy like Tommy Bowden.

Or the Wildcats can dip into the moral cesspool and go for a guy like Bobby Petrino.

Let me just say one thing about Petrino: First of all, a higher profile program with less character than Kentucky (say, Tennessee) will take a guy like Petrino.

But even if I’m wrong on that and this new and improved Petrino comes to UK, as soon as he sniffs any success in Lexington, he’d be off to a higher profile program, like, again, Tennessee.

So be careful what you wish for.

Off the top of my head, I’d probably like to take a shot with a guy like Leach, Or Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.

But it really sadly reflects the state of affairs here that I’m not sure why either man would leave his current situation to come to Kentucky.

It wouldn’t be for the patient fan base, that’s for sure.

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  • Why get rid of Joker? It really doesn't matter who the coach is, UK will seldom be any better than a 6-5 team. It isn't Joker's fault that UK can't consistently draw competitive talent for their league, they never have been in my lifetime. And I wouldn't call what Western KY did a domination over UK. Louisville, ah, yes. Sure, Alabama beat WKU 35-zip, but they scored 4 of those on the arm of red-hot AJ McCarron. Alabama was coming off a season-opening 41-14 victory over No. 8 Michigan, where Michigan had fewer rushing yards than WKU in the first half. Alabama is going to do that to everybody this year. So, WKU is no slum team, and could give several majors all that they wanted. But UK is in the SEC. The question is who the heck is UK going to attract that can do any better? Nobody, that is who. Besides, it is a basketball school.