The University of Kentucky hasn't been considered a football powerhouse since the days of Bear Bryant and their 1950 National Championship season. Since then, UK has always been considered to be a bottom dweller of the SEC, content to wait until basketball season when banners and trophies were not just possible, but expected.
What few outside fans or experts realize, however, is that Kentucky has a very passionate and large fanbase that yearns for a contender on the gridiron. UK consistently ranks in the top 25 in NCAA for football attendance (with this year being an obvious exception), and the slightest hint of success will generally drive the Bluegrass State into a frenzy.
The Big Blue Nation got a small taste of this when Rich Brooks took over a probation-strapped program in 2003 and eventually molded it into a respectable program. While the Wildcats never became a powerhouse by any stretch, they went from constant losing seasons to four straight bowls games, being competitive in nearly every game and even pulling off the occasional shocking upset (like their 43-37 victory in 2007 against No. 1 ranked and eventual national champion LSU).
During this time, Kentucky had an up-and-coming assistant coach named Joker Phillips. Under his guidance, recruiting and the offense both saw a marked improvement. Add in the fact that he was a former Kentucky player (and bled blue about as much as anyone could), and Rich Brooks had a great candidate to keep things going after he decided to retire in following the 2009 season.
So what went wrong from there? The following slideshow will hopefully shed a little light on what led to Joker Phillip's disappointing exit from a Kentucky program that he loved so much.
All game recaps and stats via ESPN.com
At a tearful press conference in January of 2008, Joker Phillips was introduced as Rich Brook's eventual successor at the University of Kentucky.
While some were skeptical of such a move being made without examining other options, many praised the move as being very beneficial for the football program. With Phillips also acting as recruiting coordinator, there looked to be a huge benefit to being able to tell recruits that the one of the main people bringing them to the school would still be around for years to come.
Combine that with Phillips' love for UK and success as a recruiter/play caller, and Kentucky looked like it had made a great step towards continuing the strides it had made towards becoming a solid football program under Brooks.
After Rich Brooks retired following the 2010 season, it was time for Joker Phillips to take the reins. Phillips immediately made some big moves (and raised more than a few eyebrows) when he fired two of Kentucky's best position coaches (per Thomas Beisner at Kentucky Sports Radio).
Jimmy Heggins (offensive line coach) and Rick Petri (defensive line coach) were widely considered two of the best position coaches in the SEC. Kentucky's play in the trenches was consistently considered an area of over achievement for a team that often did not have the same caliber of recruits as its competition.
Phillips opted to replace both of them with coaches (Mike Summers and David Turner) that he felt would be better recruiters. While the Brooks regime had developed a reputation for helping to turn 2- and 3-star recruits into star players (like Randall Cobb and Wesley Woodyard), Phillips seemed to be of the opinion that UK would never truly compete for an SEC championship unless recruiting significantly improved.
Some saw this move as realistic; others saw it as a huge mistake.
After opening the 2010 season with three straight wins, the Wildcats dropped their next three games, causing the Big Blue Nation to become restless.
Even though their latest defeat was a three-point heart-breaker to eventual national champion Auburn, Kentucky fans were worried that a rough upcoming SEC schedule meant that the Wildcats would would not beat any team of significance.
But on a magical night in October, the Wildcats rebounded from an 18-point halftime deficit to stun the No. 10 South Carolina Gamecocks 31-28 in Commonwealth Stadium. The win not only marked a huge moment for Phillips, but also represented the program's first win EVER over a team coached by Steve Spurrier.
There were still some concerns that the team consistently seemed to come out incredibly flat in the first half of nearly every game, but most of us were too busy celebrating to care. "The Visor" had finally been defeated, and the Wildcats looked like they were back on track.
After the Wildcats' big win against South Carolina, Joker Phillips openly discussed the (very real) possibility that the Wildcats could win the SEC East (per Larry Vaught).
With a home game against the struggling University of Georgia Bulldogs and a relatively easy schedule after that, Kentucky looked poised to do some huge things in a conference that had not seen it have a winning record in decades.
Instead, the Wildcats once again came out flat, turning the ball over four times to the Bulldogs en route to a 44-31 loss. The team went on to win only two of its next five games. In one of those wins against "cupcake" opponent Charleston Southern University, the Wildcats (once again) struggled mightily in the first half.
Despite its weak ending to the season, Kentucky still became bowl eligible with six wins. This extended the program's streak to five straight bowl games and gave more credence to the argument that the team's struggles this year were just a slight bump caused the the coaching transition.
The late date of Joker Phillips' first bowl game would give the team a lot of extra time to prepare...which it would need after starting quarterback Mike Hartline was arrested (per Shawntaye Hopkins of the Lexington Herald-Leader) on disorderly conduct and public intoxication charges and subsequently suspended from the team.
Many fans actually saw this as a blessing in disguise, however, since it would give sophomore quarterback Morgan Newton a chance to get a head start on next season. Newton had been a very highly touted recruit out of high school and even managed to lead the team to a couple of impressive road victories and a 5-2 record when forced into service during his freshman season.
Meanwhile, Kentucky's opponent, the Pittsburgh Panthers were reeling. Their head coach, Dave Wannstedt, had just been fired (per Alan Robinson of the Huffington Post) and replaced by Mike Haywood...who was almost immediately fired after being arrested and jailed on a domestic violence charge (per ESPN.com).
Even though Kentucky clearly seemed to have the advantage in stability, preparation, and even talent, the Panthers steamrolled the Wildcats in the BBVA Compass Bowl 27-10.
Despite an ongoing labor dispute that may have wiped out the upcoming NFL season, Randall Cobb still decided to enter the 2011 NFL after his junior season (per NFL.com).
It was a little hard to fathom such a loyal, true blue deciding not to play for the Wildcats during his senior season while at the same time facing the very real prospect of the NFL not having a season. This was a player that had always put the team and the program first. Was he making a decision based on his current draft stock...or was Cobb disenchanted by how Joker Phillips was running the Kentucky football program?
If the answer was the latter, Cobb is way too classy and loyal of a person to ever say it. Whatever the reason was, however, the Wildcats had lost arguably the best football playmaker in the school's history. There was no doubt that much of the team's marginal success last year could be attributed to his amazing playmaking ability and leadership.
When Kentucky began the 2011 season, there was a subdued yet palpable optimism felt through the Big Blue Nation. Morgan Newton, who had shown flashes of brilliance during his young career, would have full control the offense. Joker Phillips' system had now had a year to settle in. The offensive line was full of veterans and considered possibly one of the best in the SEC.
What the fans got in the season opening game against Western Kentucky University, however, was a very different team from the year before. The offense looked bewildered, the receivers couldn't catch the ball and the play-calling made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Despite earning a 14-3 win, the enduring image from that contest is WKU linebacker Andrew Jackson incredulously stating the Wildcats did not deserve to be considered an SEC-caliber team.
Kentucky also struggled in its second game against what should have been an inferior opponent before finally defeating Central Michigan 27-13.
Four years in a row, Kentucky fans had enjoyed dominating Louisville on the football field. While the Wildcats' 40-34 in 2007 was a nail-biter, it was against a heavily favored Cardinals team that at the time was ranked as the No. 9 team in the nation. The Cardinals almost made a game of it in 2009, but Kentucky ripped the rivalry's momentum right back in 2010 with a convincing 23-16 win.
Combine this with the resurgence of Kentucky's basketball program under John Calipari, and the Big Blue Nation had bragging rights that couldn't be touched by their in-state rivals.
Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, however, had different plans. He fired up his team be declaring that once they won the Governor's Cup that year, it was never going back to Kentucky again (per Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio).
His team responded by handing the Wildcats a 24-17 loss that also served as a notice of the Cardinal football program passing UK's progress on the gridiron.
After their loss against Louisville, the Wildcats dropped their next three games in a row, including a particularly embarrassing 54-3 loss again South Carolina.
In addition to giving a mirror image of Phillips' signature win from last season, the Wildcats' atrocious play against the Gamecocks brought out some pretty harsh statements about the coach from some of his former players (per Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio).
The Wildcats finally got a win to snap their four-game losing streak, but it was against FCS opponent Jacksonville State. Since this didn't really seem to inspire anyone, Joker Phillips decided for their next game against No. 21 Mississippi State, they would have the players dress in the very popular black jerseys.
I know that some folks don't understand their appeal, but take a look at this video of players from Ohio University's football team when they discover that they will be wearing black jerseys for a special game that year.
Between the screams of joy and one player even calling his father to announce the good news, it's pretty clear that it meant a lot to them.
Now watch this video of Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy unveiling the new black uniforms for the team's game against MSU. The players' reactions are incredibly subdued to the point of almost seeming uninterested.
Now as anyone with half a brain can tell you, new/cool football jerseys won't make a team play any better (as evidenced by Kentucky's 28-16 loss in its new uniforms against the Bulldogs). But an overall lack of morale can have a very adverse effect on player performance, especially with young players at this level.
To make matters worse, one of the few bright spots in the game actually became a flash point of controversy. After Morgan Newton injured his ankle in the first quarter, Maxwell Smith came in the game and ended up going 26-33 for 174 yards. He continued to lead the team for the rest of the season and played much better than Newton ever had...
...which makes you wonder if Zipp Duncan was correct in his assessment that Newton was "hand picked" by Phillips rather than having to earn the starting position.
In a statement made on October 14, University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart confirmed that Joker Phillips would not only remain the coach this year, but in 2012 as well (per Alan Culter of Lex18.com).
During the press conference, Barnhart made a couple of ill-advised statements that drew the ire of Kentucky fans.
-He referred to fans being frustrated with the direction of the program as being symptomatic of a "microwave society" in which everyone wants results now. While that analogy may work in most cases, it's wrong to say that about fans that have put UK in the top 25 of NCAA attendance year after year for a team that hasn't had a winning conference record in three decades.
-Barnhart also compared Phillips' struggles this season with the ones that Brooks faced when he took over the program in 2003...which is a terrible and completely inaccurate correlation. Brooks took over a team that had been hit hard with scholarship reductions due to probation. Phillips, on the other hand, took over a program in good health for which he had been the recruiting coordinator and offensive coordinator for two years.
The whole point of having a "coach in waiting" was so that the program did not lose any momentum. Instead, it looked like the Wildcats were not only losing it, but also falling completely backwards.
While Vanderbilt had improved from being a guaranteed win to a competitive game for most SEC schools, Kentucky could usually count on getting the better of the Commodores.
But on November 12, the Wildcats were demolished in Nashville by a score of 38-8.
A 19-10 loss to Georgia a week later meant that for the first time in six years, Kentucky football would not be eligible to go to a bowl game.
On the day of the Wildcats' final game of the season, things got off to a rocky start. Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart once again reiterated that Joker Phillips would remain the head coach next season. He also said that he would give Phillips "time to turn the program around" (per Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio).
It may have just been an issue of semantics, but in many people's minds, the program had already been turned around...just in the wrong direction.
Regardless, the UK football team had bigger issues to deal with, namely the fact that they didn't have a quarterback that was physically able to play in their final game due to a rash of late-season injuries. That meant that senior wide receiver Matt Roark would have to go under center during a game for the first time since he was in high school.
Even though this was a very weak Tennessee team compared to years past, it still didn't look like there was any chance for Kentucky to break the Volunteers unprecedented 26-game winning streak over them.
But with the Wildcats running the option again and again (against a Volunteer defense that didn't seem to have figured out that it was the only play they were able to run on offense), UK somehow pulled out a 10-7 victory and broke one of college football's most notorious curses.
Fans poured out of the stands and helped to carry Roark off the field. For most of the Big Blue Nation, this was better than a bowl game...and for the first time in a long time, the vibes around the Kentucky football program were actually positive.
Joker Phillips developed a reputation as a "streak breaker" (due to also breaking the Spurrier streak the year before) and earned himself enough good will that keeping him for another year didn't seem as crazy and ill-advised a decision as it had before.
When Kentucky opened the 2012 season with a 32-14 loss to the Louisville Cardinals, there wasn't nearly as much wailing and gnashing of teeth as there was when they lost to their in-state rival last year. The Cardinals had begun the season ranked No. 25 in the nation and were expected to possibly contend for a BCS spot.
On its own, this should have given football fans in the state of Kentucky a very clear picture of how the different the directions of the two programs were heading. But for anyone that needed an even starker contrast, the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers would deliver.
In Kentucky's third game of the season, WKU shocked the Wildcats on their home field 32-31. This was a team that Kentucky had beaten just three years ago by a score of 63-28. Now the two programs' fortunes seemed to have completely reversed.
And to make matters even worse, the University of Kentucky was considered to have only the third best football team in its own state.
After losing to Western Kentucky University, the Wildcats dropped their next three games, all against conference opponents. Excepting one good half of play against South Carolina, they also looked absolutely terrible.
The players seemed confused, the play-calling was confusing (to say the least) and the play at the line (where UK's two best position coaches had been replaced just a few years ago) left much to be desired.
Adding onto the problems facing Joker Phillips and his coaching staff were a rash of injuries so massive that it seemed almost freakish.
But no amount of injuries or young players pressed into service could excuse the Wildcats' play in their 49-7 loss against the Arkansas Razorbacks. In a game that was severely shortened due to lightening, the Hogs were still able to score four touchdowns in the first quarter. They scored three more before UK finally answered with a score of their own.
The team looked uninspired, disinterested and poorly coached. At this point, even the few fans trying to support Joker Phillips were having a great deal of trouble doing so.
After an impressive showing against No. 11 Georgia (which still resulted in a 29-24 loss), Kentucky slid back into their habit or poor play in an embarrassing 33-10 loss to new SEC member Missouri.
Despite calls for athletic director Mitch Barnhart to address the future of the football program, he remained largely silent...except for a speaking engagement on October 30 in which he heaped praised Joker Phillips, referred to him as one of his dearest friends, and made an analogy comparing the recent problems with the football program to "stubbing our toes." (per Jennifer Smith of the Lexington Herald-Leader).
Things got even more awkward (and testy) when on the pregame radio show before the Wildcats' matchup with Vanderbilt, Barnhart claimed that the fans who wanted Joker gone felt that way due to a personal agenda (per Adam Schilt of Kentucky Sports Radio).
Unfortunately for Barnhart, most of the fans simply had an agenda to not pay their hard-earned money to watch a team that had consistently gotten worse over the last three years. The following picture (courtesy of Kentucky Sports Radio) is a panoramic shot of Commonwealth Stadium minutes before kickoff.
Mitch Barnhart's "personal agenda" must have changed a great deal after the Vanderbilt game; the next day, he posted a letter on the University of Kentucky Athletics website stating that Joker Phillips would not be UK's coach next season.
At this point, Barnhart has two very daunting tasks ahead of him:
1. Finding a new head coach during a year that will most likely see multiple SEC job openings.
2. Repairing the damage caused between the athletics department and the fans that spend money Kentucky tickets and merchandise (as well as the donors).
For Phillips, it's a sad end for someone that wasn't able to find success at what he considered to be his dream job. Philips may have not been a good head coach, but he loved the school and this team as much as anyone ever could.
Hopefully another program will give him the chance to work in a capacity that as a recruiter and/or coordinator where he can once again find success.
To read my article from last year where I predicted almost this exact same scenario playing out, click here.
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