Phillips wants to leave Miami on a high note
They all look to him as the family leader.
And then there's the 90-some-odd other brothers inside the Miami locker room, guys who seek Phillips' counsel on everything from fatherhood to schoolwork to football and just about anything in between.
They all look to him as the family leader, too.
"I guess it's what I'm supposed to be," Phillips said.
Maybe his grandmother was on to something. As the story goes, she picked Phillips up when he was a baby and decided to call him "Big Man," a nickname that has stuck throughout his 23 years. It used to be only a moniker. These days, as his college career at Miami is in its final weeks, Phillips looks at the name as a measure of responsibility - both to his family and his team.
He's played sick. He's playing hurt now, with a torn shoulder that will need surgery after the season and causes so much pain that his time on the field is, at best, minimal. But he's still there.
Big Man, indeed.
"The thing that you always like about Randy is he may get down, but he gets back on track real quick," Miami coach Randy Shannon said. "He has a lot of pride in what he's doing. He has a lot of pride in himself. And when things go back, he picks his head up because he knows things could be worse. Coming from where he's from, he's seen a lot worse."
If it sounds like Shannon has a special affinity with Phillips, it's because he does.
Shannon's job is to win football games, plain and simple. And the Hurricanes (7-2, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) are surely better with Phillips than without him. But when Phillips got hurt against Virginia Tech - all the way back in Game 3 of the season - it didn't take Shannon long to decide not to decide anything on the player's behalf.
Phillips has a family to worry about. And yes, he does have his degree from Miami, but is hoping for NFL dollars. Knowing that, Shannon did not pressure Phillips about playing again on Saturdays in 2009, for fear that he could wreck his shot for Sundays in 2010.
"I've seen some guys here, their careers were done injury-wise," Shannon said. "That's the one thing that comes to my mind. Me and the doctors, we always talk about, 'What happens if he does play?' ... Those are the things we do."
Phillips expected nothing less from Shannon than understanding, which is what he received.
There's a reason why Shannon is remarkably popular among his players: Many of them see a lot of themselves in the coach. Phillips comes from a rough background, financially strapped upbringing, his mother died 17 years ago. Shannon, same thing: Father was killed when he was 3, siblings died of AIDS and fell victim to life on the streets, and he rose above it all.
"Coach Shannon means everything to me," Phillips said. "He's an example of an African-American man who's in college football and is what society needs right now, especially in South Florida. He's always been there for me in the hard times. He's my inspiration. He picks me up when I'm down, helps me with my career and making the right decisions with my son, being in the right place, being a man."
Phillips is from the sun-baked town of Belle Glade, Fla., about an hour north of Coral Gables. Belle Glade's a place troubled by gang violence, drug use and unemployment. Football is the ticket out of town, and Phillips used it proudly, becoming the first in his family to attend college.
He briefly considered leaving after last season - degree in hand - but decided to apply for a fifth season, and the NCAA obliged.
"I think the best thing about Randy Phillips is he's a leader," Miami quarterback Jacory Harris said. "He's like a coach on the field for our defense. I think he takes a lot of pride in setting the example around here."
Phillips' reason for returning was simple: He wanted to leave Miami's program better than he found it.
The class that will play their final game for the Hurricanes in a couple of months - especially if Miami finishes this regular season 10-2, a goal that's three victories away - can say they've done that, Phillips said.
"I'm taking every day here like it's my last, to get the best and most out of it and get ready for the next level," Phillips said. "I think about this a lot: When I got here, the program was good, but we weren't having a season like we're having now. People said the class I came in with was the reason why we fell off. Well, we're being recognized nationally again. That's a great feeling."