Fire Joker? Not so fast

There are more than a few reasons to keep Phillips at UK

By Brian Rickerd Published:

LEXINGTON – I admit that I’ve been about as hard as most any media type over this past year or so when it comes to University of Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips.

It’s also true that more often than not I have picked on Phillips pretty much just for comic effect. I have not meant to come across as harshly as I probably have most of the time.

On a handful of occasions, I’ve been genuinely angry with Phillips about strategy, such as when he ran Morgan Newton, not Randall Cobb, on that third-and-5 play against Tennessee three years ago, when Phillips was UK’s offensive coordinator.

On a couple other occasions, I picked on Phillips for what I perceived to be a lack of effort by his players (Read: Last year’s 38-8 loss at Vanderbilt).

Truthfully, a lack of effort has rarely been a problem under Phillips. And that’s usually the first sign that a coach needs to go – when his players stop playing for him.

That hasn’t happened for the Wildcats under Phillips, who is 12-18 in two-plus seasons as UK head coach.

Joker Phillips’ Wildcats play hard.

What I’m getting around to saying is that I believe it would strongly be in the best interests of Kentucky football to keep Phillips beyond this season.

I hope this trial (and aren’t all coaches these days on trial, pretty much?) runs at least a couple more seasons.

My mind has turned these past couple weeks, since the 32-31 loss to Western Kentucky on Sept. 15 ... a loss that, by the way, may not turn out to look so bad with the way the Hilltoppers have continued to play.

I started to second-guess my skepticism about Phillips when Kentucky played at Florida on Sept. 22.

I felt like the Wildcats’ defense – far and away the team’s biggest problem through the first three weeks of the season – improved dramatically in Gainesville.

Yes, Kentucky lost, 38-0, but that’s a case where numbers lie.

The UK defenders were immensely improved that day. And that fact came totally out of the blue.

The Florida game got out of hand only because the Wildcats played without standout quarterback Maxwell Smith, and Phillips felt it was too soon to throw highly-touted freshman QB Jalen Whitlow into the fire.

The UK offense fizzled under Newton and, as a result, too much burden was placed on Kentucky’s defense. The Wildcats’ defenders clearly wore down in the second half.

Ditto for Saturday’s 38-17 loss to No. 6-ranked South Carolina.

The Kentucky defense AND offense were terrific for one half against the Gamecocks. The Wildcats died in the second half only because USC figured out what to do with UK’s Whitlow, and because Steve Spurrier is one heckuva football coach with one heckuva football team.

South Carolina is a legitimate national title contender, and Kentucky was one late first-half score away from really putting the Gamecocks in trouble.

The Wildcats did not get that score, which would have made it 24-7 UK going into halftime, because Whitlow was too inexperienced to manage a dicey clock situation in the final minute of the first half.

But, you see, that will change.

Whitlow is an astonishing athlete. I say, again, he was the starting quarterback on a Prattville High team that won Alabama’s Class 6A state championship last season.

That’s big boy football in a state that pretty much defines the sport.

Behind Whitlow we still have Maxwell Smith, who could start at quarterback for probably 90 percent of the major college teams out there. Smith hurt an ankle on the second play of the South Carolina game and his status is uncertain.

Behind those two we have freshman QB Patrick Towles, who signed with the Wildcats this past spring while being billed by some as Tim Couch with a stronger arm.

I’d love to see any of those three throwing darts next season to Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons.

That’s up to Timmons, who hasn’t made his college choice.

This quarterback talk gets me around to Exhibit A on why I now hope Phillips stays around.

Throughout the summer and into preseason camp, Phillips and his staff have talked on and on about how young and how talented these Wildcats are.

Seventy-two players on the UK roster are either true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores.

Just be patient, Phillips and company have told us.

I was, at times at least, sarcastic about all that talk of patience because I wasn’t convinced that Phillips and his staff know how to develop talent.

And it’s too soon to break out party hats, by any means, and say that Phillips and his young team have arrived, not with a 1-4 record headed into a game at home Saturday against undefeated Mississippi State.

Brief sidenote: Has anyone noticed that the teams Kentucky have played so far in 2012 are a combined 17-1?

I see, arguably, more talent on this Kentucky team than I’ve seen in years. I’m not saying this is SEC championship down the road talent, but it would not surprise me to see this be eight win, nine win type talent within a couple of years.

It’s amazing to me how quickly many of Phillips’ youngsters are growing up and making plays.

They are making the mistakes of youth, to be sure, but those can be fixed when you add experience to talent and savvy, and I believe Kentucky has talent and savvy in abundance.

Last, I’d like to offer a word of caution to all those fans clamoring for the UK administration to get rid of Phillips and bring either some up and coming young hot shot or some BIG NAME.

First of all, just what BIG NAME guy do you think would take this job? If your list extends beyond zero, you’re being foolish.

But either way it could go – young hot shot or grizzled veteran – if that person did manage to get Kentucky football going in the right direction, this job would be no more than a stepping stone to a bigger job.

But if Joker Phillips succeeds, he’s a lifer. Because Phillips has a quality that is a cliché for most, but is not for him: His blood really is blue.

I understand that none of this may matter in the near future because of the economics of the situation.

If Kentucky fans continue to stay away from Commonwealth Stadium, athletics director Mitch Barnhart may have no choice but to make a change. But, again, I believe any potential fix would be temporary.

So I urge you: Be careful what you wish for.

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  • Brian, Jalen Whitlow was NOT the starting quarterback of Prattville, AL's 2011 state champs. Georgia Tech signee Justin Thomas was. Whitlow was a "wildcat" type QB, which makes his performance Saturday even more impressive. I'm not sure I agree with you on Joker. Rick Brooks handed him a stocked cupboard in 2010 with QB Hartline, RB Locke, Jack-of-all-positions Cobb and a decent defense. You think the young talent we have right now are any better than those guys? Cobb might be the best all-round football player UK has EVER had; I'm 45 and he's the best I've seen in over 30 years of watching UK football. With all that talent, Joker's first team finsihed a disappointing 6-7, UK's first losing season in five years. Then he broke UK's five-year bowl streak last season, and the win total dropped to 5-7. Now at 1-4 we'll be lucky to match last year's record. You say he can develop talent, but can he IDENTIFY where they best fit on a football team? Coming out of high school in Carmel, Ind., Morgan Newton was a highly-rated dual-threat QB, not a dropback QB. Anybody who saw his high school team play could tell you he was a running QB with an average arm. His size and skill set is similar to former UK QB Derrick Ramsey, who excelled in UK's option offense in the last '70s. By trying to force a square peg (Newton) into a round hole (passing offense), he ran off UK's best dropback QB, Ryan Mossakowski. If he wanted Newton to be the QB, he should have changed the offense to the spread option. It was a disservice to Newton, who has the athletic ability and build to play in the NFL as a TE or H-Back. Joker finally figured that out this season before going BACK to Newton at Florida, where Whitlow should've been prepared to play as our back-up QB.

  • This is the first carefully thought out article on this subject that Brian Rickerd has written. I think that Carl West should keep him on for two more years and see if how he does. ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ I have said before that the football coach at UK has a minimal effect on the W-L record, and that getting rid of Joker Phillips would not matter all that much. They could bring in Nick Saban (except he wouldn't come to UK for any price that they could afford) at UK and he still would not be able to recruit to be competitive in the SEC. It is just like Coach Cal would never go to Alabama. This is a basket school and it may always be that way. The fans should be used to it by now and accept that a GREAT year is when they upset one of the top conference schools, are competitive in most games and go to the Music City Bowl. A Good Year is when they are competitive in some SEC games (6-5), beat one or two of the SEC also-rans and get a bid to the Liberty Bowl. ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ Like Brian says, who else are they going to get that has the fire in his belly that Joker Phillips has?

  • Developing young men; them learning how to weather adversity; learning to never give up and keep improving...that's my desire. Forget this "win at all costs stuff".