“I hate to see him go like this. He is a guy that has meant so much to me. He brought me in. He’s the first guy I shook hands with when I came here. I wanted to make sure he knew that I want him to coach us these last two games.”
– UK senior center Matt Smith on departing head coach Joker Phillips
LEXINGTON – The thought crossed Joker Phillips’ mind that maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to coach his University of Kentucky football team in season-closing games vs. Samford (home on Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m.) or at Tennessee (on Nov. 24, time TBA).
Not after it was announced over the weekend that Phillips was being dismissed after nearly three seasons as UK’s head man, and 10 years at the school overall – the previous seven years as an assistant coach.
“It was hard (the decision), because I don’t want to be a distraction,” Phillips said Tuesday in his first comments since athletics director Mitch Barnhart announced, typically, via an online letter Sunday, that Phillips and his staff were being relieved of their duties, effective the end of this season.
“I’ve had my senior day,” said Phillips, whose current seniors will be honored at Senior Day during the Samford game. “I don’t want an open casket. I want it to be all about these seniors.
“Many of these guys I sat in their home and I told them – this was one of my selling pieces – I want to be there to watch you grow up. That’s what it’s all about as a head coach.
“The memories I’ll remember the most are these players.”
It’s been an emotional few days around Kentucky football since the Wildcats were thumped 40-0 by Vanderbilt at home Saturday in a game played before some 20,000 fans, at best.
“I get what we saw Saturday, I do,” Phillips said. “Walking out there into that (relatively empty) stadium, that was ... that was enough for me. I understand that.”
While everybody has an opinion around the football program here, and those opinions have grown increasingly negative as the losses have mounted (currently nine losses in 10 games), it’s also true that most people appear to love Joker the man, even if they don’t love Joker the coach.
The Wildcat players found out about Phillips’ dismissal at a meeting early Sunday morning, presided over by close friends, Phillips and Barnhart and the rest of the coaching staff.
“It was definitely an emotional room,” Smith said. “When you’ve been a part of something, dedicated so much of your time to something like this, spend every day pretty much with these guys – all day – it’s tough to know they’re going to be gone at the end of the season and that the times you have had are just memories.”
“A lot of guys on this team don’t get emotional very often,” said Zach West, a redshirt freshman lineman, “but everybody in that room was emotional because of what Coach Phillips means to this state and this program and all these guys on this team.”
Smith and West were relatively upbeat Monday compared to senior defensive lineman Dante Rumph, who looked like a guy who’d just witnessed his beloved family dog run over by a cement mixer.
“It was emotional, real quiet, you know?” Rumph said of the meeting. “I was excited that he’ll coach these last two games. That shows how he loves this team and this university.
“Now we have to finish strong, for our seniors, our pride, the love of football and the blue and white.”
Phillips says he has no bitterness towards anyone. He only wishes these Wildcats had had a little more luck when it comes to injuries ... injuries that wiped out a lot of promise early this season.
“At the beginning of the year, the thing I tried to stress to our staff is let’s show improvement and get to 2013, because I thought in ‘13 we would have the opportunity to make a leap.
“The first three games this year I thought we did show improvement on offense and special teams. It was hard NOT to notice that. But then, when we started to improve defensively, that’s when the injuries hit.”
On two fronts. The worst loss may have been on offense, a leg injury to sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith that ended his season in Week 4. Then the Wildcats started to fall on the defensive side like British soldiers in an open, Revolutionary War battlefield.
“When Max went out, we had to rebuild offensively, and therefore we didn’t get a chance to continue what we had hoped to do,” Phillips said.
Phillips indicated that problems started long before this season, however. They started near the end of the Rich Brooks era when Kentucky lost so many recruits, either before they even got to campus or for various reasons after they arrived.
“We were losing over 50 percent of our classes over four years,” Phillips said. “They were either not getting here or not finishing here.
“You can blame that on me, because I was a part of it. But I also wanted to be part of the solution.
“At that point we decided to go about things a different way. We tried to build relationships. That’s what sells is. The way we recruited was very personable. That’s why a lot of the parents of these young players are saddened by this, not by me, but by the assistant coaches who are not going to be here.
“So that’s what makes you sad, when you are doing it the right way, and when you do it the right way sometimes it takes a little longer.”
Much has been made in the Kentucky fan base this past year about the emphasis, or lack of, put on the football program by the UK administration. Some of the football facilities – Commonwealth Stadium, most notably – are showing signs of age.
Asked about this on Tuesday, Phillips, typically, took the high road.
“I never asked Mitch (Barnhart) for anything,” Phillips said, his voice trailing off. “The only things I ever asked for were to help the players, and he never once said no to anything that would benefit them.”
Asked if he wished he HAD asked for more, as Brooks apparently did on his way out three years ago, Phillips shook his head.
He understood where this line of questioning was leading.
“Bells and whistles don’t sell places,” Phillips said. “They don’t. They just don’t. They might help a little. But I was at Notre Dame, and if you’d have seen the locker rooms, the meeting rooms ... they (luxuries) weren’t there. And they’ve won quite a few championships.”
Phillips said the keys to winning here are “steady recruiting” and veteran leadership at quarterback.
“You have to make sure you have a guy that can pull the trigger (the QB), and make sure you have the two upper classes stockpiled,” he said.
Phillips said he believes Maxwell Smith, expected to be back for spring practice, is the quarterback who can take the Wildcats to “the next level.”
Phillips indicates he does not blame UK fans for abandoning ship as they appear to have done this season.
“The thing that I would tell the Big Blue Nation is we all have a hand in it if we want this thing to succeed,” Phillips said. “We all do. And it’s not moaning and groaning when we don’t get the results. If the next guy doesn’t get the results as fast as we want them, stand behind him. Stand behind these players and coaches. Show up in droves.
“I will. I’ll stand behind them. I’ll be rooting like heck for them. We are all a part of getting kids here.
“I’m trying to get kids to come here today. This can be a really good place, but it’s going to take everybody to get involved.”
Asked if he expects to be a head coach next season, somewhere, Phillips shook his head.
“No, I’m going to take some time,” he said. “I don’t have a clue what’s next, if it’ll be a head coach or in coaching. I have no clue. I think it’s best to step back and step away. Let all the emotions die down, and then figure things out.”
Phillips said he’s grateful for his many years at UK, starting in the early ’80s when he signed with the Wildcats out of Franklin-Simpson High School in Franklin, Ky.
“I’m very grateful for all the opportunities that everyone around here has given me,” Phillips said. “I came here as an 18-year-old kid. This place turned me into a man the first time, and then, this time, all it did was strengthen me as a man.
“It made me understand how important character and faith are. It showed me how important loyalty is.”