Joker Phillips used to run. It wasn’t until he walked that he saw things as they really were.
We once spoke about the strolls that he took around Lexington with his wife Leslie. When he ran, there were things he rarely noticed — houses, trees — things that came into focus on those walks.
It was on one of those walks that Phillips got the call that he would be replacing Rich Brooks as Kentucky’s coach. But what started with an energy and a vision for taking the Wildcats from the foundation that Brooks built and turning it into a program that could rival the monolith of a basketball team he shared a campus with is over.
Phillips, 49, will not return after the season, athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced Sunday in an open letter on the department’s website.
A former Kentucky wide receiver, Phillips took over after Brooks left in 2010 and in his first season took the Wildcats to the Compass Bowl after going 6-7 and 2-6 in the SEC. It would be Kentucky’s only postseason appearance under Phillips as they went on to go 5-7 with another 2-6 SEC finish last season and were off to a 1-9 start this year, including an 0-7 league mark.
“We, as coaches, are measured on results,” Phillips said in a statement. “We didn’t get the results we had worked and hoped for, therefore change is needed. In my current 10-year stay at Kentucky, we’ve had some memorable moments as an assistant, coordinator and head coach.
“We’ve had the opportunity to coach some fine young men and I am grateful to have had the privilege of watching them grow as players, as students and as people.”
His firing came one day after a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt in which the Wildcats were outgained 447-260. It was the sixth time in the last eight games Kentucky, which is playing 26 freshmen due to injuries, had allowed at least 32 points.
“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 the season,” Barnhart said in the letter. “I do so with a heavy heart for a man who has served his alma mater for almost 22 years as a player and a 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 last decade.”
There were certainly critics when Phillips was hired. One day after the Wildcats’ loss to Clemson in the Music City Bowl in December 2009, Phillips got the call from Brooks that he would be resigning. Eight days later, Phillips was named his successor and while he had helped to revitalize the Kentucky offense as coordinator, he had never been a head coach.
Phillips preached about an energetic approach. Enthralled with the military, Phillips discussed “Operation Win” before his first season, a mantra his wife coined that was focused on winning on the field, in the classroom and in the community.
He brought fire to the job, but he was unable to recruit the kind of players to make the Wildcats a viable product in the SEC East. None of his three recruiting classes ranked higher than 13th in the conference, according to Rivals.com’s rankings, and under his direction Kentucky slipped further back every season, going from 27th in total offense in 2010, 118th last season and 120th this year.
Whoever succeeds Phillips — Barnhart says the school will begin a national search — has his work cut out for him. While the Wildcats played in five straight bowl games from 2006-10 under Brooks and Phillips, it has made just 10 other appearances in 121 years of playing football. Then there’s the matter of trying to keep up with the Joneses in the SEC, where East rivals Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee bring in blue-chip prospect after blue-chip prospect.
Phillips had a plan, but was unable to bring it to fruition. It’s now on his successor to try and take the Wildcats to the next level.
And Joker Phillips can now go on those walks with his eye wide open.