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.