Winning culture drew Joker Phillips to Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Joker Phillips wants to win again. He needs to win again.
Wins were difficult to come by the last couple of seasons for Phillips as head coach at Kentucky.
In 2010, the Kentucky graduate became the first coach in school history to take the Wildcats to a bowl game in his first season. Over the next two seasons the Wildcats won only seven games, including a 2-10 record this season.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced that Phillips would not be back next season in an open letter on the athletic department’s website the morning of Nov. 4. The well-liked Phillips coached the final two games of the regular season, said goodbye to his players and staff, packed up his office and contemplated his future.
At 49, Phillips and his wife Leslie, a professor at Georgetown (Ky.) College, discussed that maybe it was time to relax and take some time off. Maybe after 24 consecutive seasons on the sideline since taking his first coaching job as a graduate assistant in 1988, it was time for Phillips to spend his fall Saturdays at home for a change and recharge his batteries.
Phillips had opportunities out there but maybe a year off was the right thing to do.
That thought went kaput when Gators coach Will Muschamp started looking for a receivers coach. That was the kind of job that seemed a perfect fit in Phillips’ view.
“It’s just natural being a longtime receivers coach and understanding this league, and understanding the challenges,’’ Phillips said Monday. “It’s hard to pass up an opportunity like this. I wanted to take time but I also wanted an opportunity that has a chance to win and that’s what Florida is. It’s a winning program, it has a winning tradition, and that’s one of the most important reasons why I got right back into it.
“Having a chance to compete at a high level and where the goal – and it’s a realistic goal — of winning championships. That’s what was important to me.”
Phillips officially joined the Gators on Monday when Muschamp announced his hiring as receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. Phillips will start on Friday.
He spent Monday racing around Lexington trying to find Leslie a new car before he leaves for Florida. The two will live apart briefly while Leslie finishes the school year in Kentucky and Joker gets settled in Gainesville.
Until then, there are recruits to meet and players to learn and other items to cross off the list that come with a coach’s life on the move.
When Phillips began to look toward the future, he wanted his next job to be at a place like Florida. He didn’t know when it could come, but he knew what he wanted.
He wanted to coach at a place with a winning tradition and the resources to put a winning team on the field consistently. A place that draws the interest of the best recruits in the country. A place that Leslie would feel comfortable.
The two met when they were freshmen at Kentucky in the early 1980s and dated for more than a decade as Phillips climbed the coaching ladder and Leslie built a career in academia.
Phillips also liked the idea of working with Muschamp. As SEC East rivals, the two bumped into each other over the years and got to know each other a little. Eight years older than Muschamp, Phillips recalled Monday that he was an assistant at Kentucky when Muschamp was a player at Georgia in the early 1990s.
“I always respected how he did his business and hopefully he respected how I did mine,’’ Phillips said.
Once they started talking about the job, Phillips knew. He knew Florida was the place and this was the job to get him back on the sideline next fall.
Phillips also believed he could make a difference in what some consider the weakest area of Florida’s roster. If developing better receivers can help the Gators climb back to the top, Phillips is ready to get to work.
“That’s been my specialty,’’ he said. “They’ve got talent there. My job is to get the talent to play at the highest level they can possibly play. My job is to make [Will’s] and [offensive coordinator] Brent Pease’s jobs easier and make them look good, to come in and be a small piece in hopefully making them more successful.
“I know the ultimate goal at Florida is to win a championship.”
In the end that’s why Phillips couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Winning a championship is his goal, too.