KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – University of Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter has coached football at 13 schools and seen a few firings, including his own – in 2003, after nine years and four bowl games as head coach at the University of Cincinnati.
And Minter says he’s never seen a man handle such adversity as impressively as Joker Phillips has these last three weeks at UK.
UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart announced on Nov. 4 that Phillips would be let go after three years.
That would presumably mean that the 58-year-old Minter won’t coach at Kentucky anymore, either, though the next coach has the option to keep Minter and other members of Phillips’ staff.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Joker Phillips for being a standup guy these last three weeks, and showing the team how to perform in terms of behavior, attitude, work ethic and everything else,” Minter said late Saturday afternoon after the season-ending 37-17 loss to Tennessee.
Saturday’s defeat closed the 2012 season for the Wildcats at 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference. Phillips’ three-year mark as head coach for the Wildcats was 13-24.
Minter has been a college assistant at 11 other schools in 35 years of coaching, in addition to two years at Kentucky and his largely successful years as the head guy at Cincinnati.
“I’ve been through what he’s been through, and I know how tough this is, and how challenging this is, particularly being an alumnus,” Minter said of Phillips. “You know, ‘this is my school,’ so to speak. Those would be his words, ‘this is my school’, and they threw him out.
“No matter what you say, they threw him out.
“And he can say he’s numb, but I guarantee you he’ll feel it, if he doesn’t already. It’s real. He’s just done a great job fooling you guys.
“It was a quick trigger, in my estimation. But nobody asked me what I thought.”
Minter can say all this, and he can say he’s not bitter and say he is not expressing sour grapes, and yet, on the other hand, say with as much sincerity, this: “Mitch (Barnhart) has been really good to us. This entire administration has. They have handled this with class as well as Joker has.”
Minter understands these are the times we live in.
“It’s so unfortunate that perhaps over the last five to seven years, expectations maybe rose, and, of course you want to win – we all do – but maybe the perception was higher than the reality was,’’ Minter said.
In other words, maybe the previous coach, Rich Brooks, raised the bar – with five straight bowl games – that spoiled Kentucky fans.
“All of a sudden you don’t have a star quarterback like (Mike) Hartline, and you don’t have a Randall Cobb catching balls, and before you know it, you’re not moving the ball as well,” Minter said. “Then you lose a Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy, and you don’t quite have the forces to replace those guys just yet into your system.
“Just because he was the coach-in-waiting doesn’t mean he made the decisions that made the program go,” Minter says to those who suggest that Phillips has somehow been responsible for UK football for longer than three seasons.
“When I was a head coach, I made all the decisions. He’s made them for two years and 10 games. He didn’t make them for five or six years just because somebody said, ‘Hey, someday you’ll be the coach here.’
“Rich Brooks made all those decisions until that one day when he walked in and said, ‘Hey, guess what, I’m out’. That’s when he (Phillips) started changing the staff a little bit and trying to change the culture to fit the Joker Phillips way. It wasn’t necessarily bad or worse than Rich, just different.
“So those are the things that really disappoint us as coaches is that we didn’t have a chance to cultivate and grow our team to get more and more of those kinds of guys to where you start reloading like the other teams do, and not once in a blue moon you get a star and lose him, and all of a sudden you fall off the map.
“Programs like this are hard to sustain because stars don’t come around very often. When you have them, your expectations rise, and when you don’t have them, you get rid of the coach because he didn’t have any stars.”
Minter points to Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech as an example of a healthy way to handle this mess. Beamer was 2-8 in his sixth year at Tech before the Hokies turned around for good. Beamer has now led Virginia Tech to 19 consecutive bowl games.
“They gave him four, five, six years, and then a lot of people said, ‘Let’s go in another direction,’ and then somebody else said, ‘No, let’s give him a little more time.’ And then look what happened – it took off,” Minter said.
“He was the same guy in year one as he was in years five and six, by the time he got it going. Something clicked, whatever that was.’’
Minter says he does not want to paint a bad picture of Kentucky football.
“But it’s a tough place,’’ Minter cautions. “If you look at it historically, it’s a challenge job.”
Minter said that’s primarily because of the lack of SEC-caliber talent in Kentucky high schools.
“There are few numbers that come out (annually, in Kentucky high schools) that are true SEC players,” he said. “Maybe two, three, five a year. And if you get every one of them, you’d only have 15 to 20 on your roster from your own state.
“So you have to go outside your state, and to do that takes time to develop the inroads in recruiting.”
Which is why Minter says Phillips has been unfairly judged as a head coach.
“If you want to say that everybody in America should be judged after two years and 10 games, then why pull the cord when you offer them a five-year contract?” Minter said.
“I feel so bad for Joker, I really do. Because he was a lifer here, and he really was on the right track. I know people don’t want to hear that. And he has a great staff. And none of us wanted to go anywhere else.
“And when you hire the next guy, if he’s really good, he won’t stay. And if he’s really bad, you get rid of him, too. But you had a lifer here in Joker. Winning was the goal, and not leaving would have been his goal.
“So we hope the administration will use sound judgment and hire a great guy, and I hope everybody gets behind him and shows some patience.”