LEXINGTON – Joker Phillips has frequently said in nearly three years as UK football coach that his Wildcats have never quit on him.
Maybe that’s true. I understand quit is a very strong word.
But you have to wonder where the heads of the Wildcats have been recently, looking at Kentucky’s last two games – a 33-10 loss at Missouri on Oct. 27, and Saturday’s dismal 40-0 home loss to Vanderbilt.
Kentucky has lost eight straight games to fall to 1-9 overall and 0-7 in the Southeastern Conference.
The losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, in particular, have left athletics director Mitch Barnhart with no choice but to fire Phillips, effective at the end of this season.
Barnhart made that announcement on Sunday in an open letter to the “Big Blue Nation” on ukathletics.com.
“After much conversation, evaluation and prayer, I have determined that it is in the best interest of our athletics program to make a change in our football coaching staff at the conclusion of this season,” Barnhart wrote.
The Wildcats have a bye week this week, then close their home schedule Nov. 17 against Samford and wrap up the season Nov. 24 at Tennessee.
There is reason to be hopeful as UK fans eagerly await the name that will hopefully put Kentucky football on a path to success that has proven to be so difficult to achieve.
But there’s also sadness because Phillips is such a good, decent, class guy, who played at Kentucky in the early ’80s and bled blue and white for years before that.
I’m sure Phillips will go on to land an assistant job for a major college program, probably sooner rather than later, so he’ll be fine professionally.
But I’m also sure Phillips is devastated right now simply because he so clearly loves the University of Kentucky, where he’s coached the past 10 years – first as an assistant coach under Rich Brooks and the past three seasons as head coach.
The Wildcats are 12-23 with Philliips in charge.
“I am very appreciative of Mitch Barnhart and Rich Brooks for providing the opportunity to have been the head coach here,” Phillips wrote in a statement late Sunday afternoon. “Mitch has been the best athletic director I’ve ever been associated with. He’s fair and honest, and he’s ‘all in’ in terms of student-athletes’ well-being.
“Rich is the best mentor a young coach could ever have. I learned a lot from him in terms of plowing ahead. They are dear friends. Dr. Lee Todd and Dr. Eli Capilouto have both been very supportive.
“I appreciate the Big Blue Nation and encourage the fans to stay behind their team going forward.”
Phillips also expressed fondness and appreciation to his players, and, of course, his family.
And I’d like to interrupt here, so to speak, and note that Phillips and his staff have recruited and coached remarkably outstanding young men, including Frankfort’s E.J. Fields.
Fields is a senior wide receiver and special teams player for the Wildcats.
Phillips has had precious few off-the-field discipline problems with his teams.
“I love our players and am proud to be associated with them,” Phillips said. “I expect them to continue the behavior we have asked of them academically, socially and with football. I’m thankful for the staff’s hard work, dedication and what they have done in coaching and mentoring the players.
“I’d like thank my wife and family for all their support and for being behind me 100 percent.”
Much has been made of the close friendship between Phillips and his immediate boss, Barnhart. This made Sunday’s announcement all the more difficult for both men.
After announcing the pending finish of the Phillips’ tenure at UK, Barnhart wrote: “I do so with a heavy heart for a man who has served his alma mater for almost 22 years as a player and coach.
“Joker Phillips has carried the banner for the Blue and White with honor and pride. I have enjoyed working alongside him and am thankful for his friendship for the past decade.
“His concern for the entire program, his work and teaching of young people, his humanitarian work and the friendship we all enjoy with him will long surpass the scoreboard.
“I want to thank him for all those things on behalf of Kentucky.”
Barnhart said that the search for a new head coach will begin “immediately” and will be managed internally.
I believe it’s important to land a man who can energize the Kentucky fan base, which may leave out names – albeit every qualified ones – like David Cutcliffe of Duke and Tommy Tuberville of Texas Tech.
I hope it leaves out the man who may be the moral opposite of Phillips – former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino.
That would leave, if it was up to me, names like Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes, Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown, Washington State head coach Mike Leach, University of Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones and anyone who has anything to do with calling plays for the offense at the University of Oregon.