MADISON, Wis. — The notebook fills a little more each week, useful tidbits only Curt Phillips understands. He can’t know just yet, but it could represent the start of something big for his second football life — even as his first sputters toward the finish line.
No, this is not the season Phillips envisioned for himself when he returned to the University of Wisconsin after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. He thought he would win the starting quarterback job, guide the Badgers toward a fourth straight Big Ten championship and earn another shot at a Rose Bowl.
Instead, he is a backup whose impact on game days is relegated to gesturing in play calls from the sideline — a role that will continue when No. 22 Wisconsin plays at Iowa on Saturday. And while some might view 2013 as a lost season for Phillips, he refuses to allow frustration and disappointment to cloud the experience. He is taking advantage of the opportunity, picking up keys on his quest to be a football coach.
“I’m just looking at it from a player’s perspective,” Phillips said. “How would I do this? I’ve played for three coordinators. I started keeping a notebook, just piecing together things that I liked, things that I didn’t like from all three of them. Just to try to keep as much information as I can.”
This season, for example, Phillips has taken note of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s organizational skills as he prepares for every opponent.
“It’s something I hadn’t seen done that way,” Phillips said. “So it’s something that I always try to keep track of each week and the adjustments that he makes and why we’re doing that for each team so I can reference that later.”
Phillips, 23, certainly will have his share of experiences to draw from when he enters the coaching profession. Perhaps more than any player on Wisconsin’s roster, he provides a shining example of what perseverance looks like.
He arrived on campus from Kingsport, Tenn., back in 2008 as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. In 2009, he played in four games as a redshirt freshman and appeared headed on a track toward being the Badgers’ starting quarterback of the future.
But Phillips twice tore the ACL in his right knee in 2010 and missed the season. In 2011, he required an additional procedure that sidelined him for yet another year. When he returned in 2012, he didn’t resemble the player he was four years earlier and lost out on the starting quarterback job in fall camp to transfer Danny O’Brien.
Joel Stave eventually replaced an ineffective O’Brien in Week 4 only to suffer a broken collarbone during a game against Michigan State on Oct. 27. Suddenly, Phillips was thrust into an unexpected starting role, which gave him a greater appreciation for football.
“I think my mentality really changed a lot after the injuries,” Phillips said. “Making sure that I didn’t take things for granted and making the most of the opportunities that you had. I think before I had a ‘My time will come’ thought process.
“You realize you’ve got to make the most of everything you’ve got. You don’t know how long it’s going to be. For me, that was big and that’s something looking back on when I was young, it was kind of frustrating. But I think honestly that’s kind of an advantage for me getting into coaching. You know how to handle kids in those situations, when they’ve been injured like that. I feel like it’s always easier to talk to somebody who has experienced it.”
Phillips thought his five starts last season and work ethic in the spring would help him keep that starting job. But Stave, a redshirt sophomore, overtook him for the top spot in the middle of fall camp and has held on to the job this season.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Bart Houston said he never saw Phillips outwardly show his disappointment to teammates on the field or in meeting rooms.
“He’s got the best poker face on the team,” Houston said. “He thinks he should be playing this year. It didn’t happen. But he’s just out there with great maturity and great enthusiasm trying to get Joel going, get me going so I can learn the system. It’s for betterment of the program in the future. It’s not about now, it’s about next year and the year after, when he’s gone.”
One example of Phillips’ selflessness came during the season opener against UMass. With Wisconsin ahead 45-0 in the fourth quarter, Phillips was set to enter the game with the team’s reserves. Instead, he told head coach Gary Andersen that Houston deserved the opportunity to take the first snaps of his career.
Phillips distinctly recalled the way Dustin Sherer, a fifth-year senior and a season-long backup in 2009, allowed Phillips to take his first snaps during a game as a redshirt freshman.
“You kind of see how things are supposed to work,” Phillips said. “You see the writing on the wall and just want to help the team as much as possible.”
Phillips has tried to mentor both Stave and Houston as the season has unfolded. If Stave makes a mistake on third-and-long during a game, Phillips is there to calm him down on the sideline. If Houston doesn’t understand a play in practice, Phillips is close by to offer help. And his opinion is valuable because he is not only a sixth-year senior — he also started those five games last season, including the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl.
“I think we have a pretty good relationship,” Stave said. “We’re always out trying to help each other, trying to put ourselves as a team in the best position to win. So he tells me what he sees. He has a lot of good input. He’s been around the game for so long, so I really trust him.”
Phillips will finish his master’s degree in educational leadership and administration this semester with a capstone paper that measures the true cost of attending college for student-athletes, examining opportunity cost and ways to compensate athletes. He and Andersen already have begun searching for graduate assistant opportunities upon completion of his course work.
Phillips said he wanted to be remembered at Wisconsin as a team-first guy and someone who tried to do whatever he could to win when he stepped on the football field. His football career has been “humbling” and no doubt a rollercoaster ride. But in many ways, it also is only beginning.
“I’ve been involved in it so long, I’d be doing myself a disservice if I got out of it,” he said. “I’m ready to go. I’ve just got to figure out wherever that opportunity is and what the best fit is.”