LEXINGTON – UK football coach Joker Phillips appeared to be in good spirits at his weekly press conference Monday, which is remarkable given the following:
1. Kentucky is 1-2, coming off a program-deflating 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky on Saturday. The Wildcats play at 3-0, 14th-ranked Florida Saturday (12:21 on WKYT), which is as sure a defeat as the arrival of winter.
2. The first question the assembled media asked Monday was about three unnamed Wildcats who were cited for “smoking pot” last week and did not play in the WKU loss (“Kids don’t always do things just right,” Phillips said).
3. And then, the trump card, question No. 7 on Monday’s slate: “Why do you feel like you deserve more time to get this thing turned around?”
Sidenote: The guy who asked that question clarified the question by adding: “That’s a topic right now.”
Phillips fell back on the youth card in his initial response.
“Well, I mean, we’ve got 72 freshmen and sophomores in this program,” Phillips said. “We just played a (Sun Belt Conference) program that has 50 juniors and seniors in their program.
“We have a lot of good, young players here. Again, 72 freshmen and sophomores. A lot of them are playing significant roles.”
Let’s move on to question No. 11 on Monday’s slate. It referred back to question No. 7:
And for clarification, the reporter added: “What happened?”
What happened, in other words, to bring the UK program to this scarcity of juniors and seniors?
“We got a lot of young kids in this program,” Phillips reiterated. “You see them. You see them running around. For some reason, it just didn’t work out.”
Ah, there’s the operative phrase ... “for some reason.”
That brought up the obvious follow-up, question No. 12 on Monday’s scorecard: “Was it bad timing, bad recruiting?”
“No, because we’ve got some really good kids in our upperclassmen,” Phillips replied. “(Senior offensive lineman) Larry Warford, do you think that’s bad recruitreplied. “(Senior offensive lineman) Larry Warford, do you think that’s bad recruiting? (Senior offensive lineman) Matt Smith, started three years here.
“We just don’t have a lot of the numbers in the senior and junior classes. We don’t have 50 (as those pesky Hilltoppers do). Some reason or another, that’s the way it is.”
Obviously Phillips can’t answer that question honestly, so cut him slack on that. But it’s also obvious that yes, there was a two-year stretch at the end of Rich Brooks’ tenure and the start of Phillips’ reign where Kentucky’s recruiting slipped.
So now, to borrow a popular phrase of the day, it is what it is.
Kentucky does have a lot of good players in the program. So will the UK administration roll the dice and give Joker more time, beyond three years? Or will they look at the sliding attendance at Commonwealth Stadium and cut their losses, so to speak.
Which brings up question No. 15, asked of Phillips Monday: “Are you worried that you don’t have enough time?”
“I don’t worry,” Phillips said. “I haven’t got time to worry. My worry is making sure we get prepared for Florida.”
There are a couple of precedents, loosely speaking I admit, that suggest maybe Phillips deserves more time.
Joker played on Jerry Claiborne’s first team that went 0-10-1 in 1982, improved to 6-5-1 with a bowl berth in 1983 and then went 9-3 with another bowl berth in 1984.
Also, Joker was an assistant coach under Brooks when UK football was last at this low point and remained an assistant when Brooks turned things around.
But, again, I understand that logic may be too thin to save Joker.
“I’m built for this,” Joker Phillips said, finally. “I’m built for this. We’ll get it turned around. We’re fine. I’m fine.”