Phillips’ future as Wildcats coach in jeopardy
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Joker Phillips has tried to maintain a sense of humor during what has been a difficult season and mounting questions about his job status.
“I was coming over here today, and I got in the car, and my seat was hot,” he said. “And I looked up, and I had hit the seat warmer.”
Questions regarding Phillips’ future and Kentucky’s struggles are no laughing matter, though.
The Wildcats (1-8, 0-6 Southeastern Conference) lost their seventh straight game Saturday at Missouri, ensuring a third consecutive losing season and putting them on pace for their worst finish since going 2-9 in 2004.
Injuries have forced Phillips to play 26 freshmen against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. That hasn’t stopped Wildcats fans from expressing their frustration: Calling for his dismissal on radio talk shows and not showing up for games — attendance has fallen off at 67,942-seat Commonwealth Stadium.
Players say they still support Phillips and will try to finish the season with three wins to help the embattled coach.
“He’s still here, he’s still our coach, we’re still playing for him and I’m going to play hard for him,” junior right tackle Kevin Mitchell said.
“We don’t actually say anything to him (about his situation), but we come out and we practice hard. We’re keeping it going, we just continue as a team. We’re all pushing each other hard. Practicing hard shows him that we still care, that we still believe and that we’re not giving up.”
Phillips, 12-22 and in his third season at Kentucky, is one of several SEC coaches facing uncertain futures — joining Auburn’s Gene Chizik, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley and Arkansas’ John L. Smith.
But Phillips has remained upbeat through the turmoil, saying that he’s been too busy focusing on his team to pay attention to what has been or said about him.
When asked again if he has talked to Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart about his status, Phillips came back with his standard response that the two friends have talked without being specific.
It’s “just small talk,” Phillips said. “Talking like friends do weekly.”
Kentucky spokesman Tony Neely declined an interview request with Barnhart about Phillips, saying via email, “As was stated before the season, and as we do with each program, an evaluation will be done at the end of the season.”
As for Wildcats fans, they’ve had plenty to say on sports talk shows.
“Most fans feel there needs to be a change, and they’ve felt that way for some time,” said Larry Glover, who hosts a nightly radio show heard here and in Louisville.
“I think the knock on Joker is that Kentucky was relatively healthy and then they lost to Western Kentucky (32-31 in overtime). Had they beaten Western, I think he’d have a more credible case about the injuries and youth.”
That game marked a turning point for Kentucky in other ways. Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, who started strong and was expected to lead the Wildcats’ offense, suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for a 38-0 loss at Florida.
Smith lasted just two plays in his return against South Carolina, tearing an ankle ligament that has effectively ended his season. That thrust true freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles into action, with Whitlow playing most of the past three games after Towles sustained a high ankle sprain against Mississippi State.
Most of Kentucky’s youngsters have been seen on defense, something the Wildcats believe will pay off down the road. In the meantime, opponents have exploited their inexperience particularly on the road.
The Wildcats are coming off a 33-10 loss at Missouri, which followed a storm-shortened 49-7 rout at Arkansas and the one at Florida.
They’ve been more competitive at Commonwealth Stadium, playing Georgia close two weeks ago and leading South Carolina at halftime last month before the Gamecocks rallied in the second half.
Nonetheless, attendance has fallen to an average of 51,255 through five games after averaging 60,007 for seven dates last season.
“You see the loss of confidence reflected in the attendance figures this year,” said Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones, whose show is heard on 18 statewide affiliates. “This is probably the least interest I’ve seen in a UK football team in the seven, eight years I’ve been covering them. There’s never been a team that people cared less about than this one.”
Glover said some callers have questioned Barnhart’s commitment to having a winning football program, which happened regularly until last season. Despite playing in what is considered the nation’s toughest conference, the Wildcats were able to finish .500 or better from 2004-10, going to bowl games each year.
The recent record could deter potential successors from being interested in the Kentucky job for the same reasons mentioned by callers, Glover added.
Still, no one has totally ruled out Phillips’ return.
If the Wildcats can close with a winning streak, Phillips might get a reprieve. While none of the opponents are imposing, they could provide a bright spot in having to play so many underclassmen. They eagerly want to see their careers through with the coach that brought them here.
“He’s the same encouraging coach,” sophomore linebacker Alvin Dupree said. “He’s a good dude and I really don’t try to look at it that he’s leaving. Hopefully, he’ll continue to be the same coach and we’ll keep moving forward.”