Joker Phillips caught in a Catch 22

Joker Phillips caught in a Catch 22

Published Jan. 20, 2012 7:27 a.m. ET

The story has taken on a life of its own. After capturing the SEC Championship for Kentucky in 1950 and defeating No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, Bear Bryant told the Associated Press that he'd been awarded with an engraved cigarette lighter while Adolf Rupp had been given a Cadillac.

The UK faithful have been tamping down the story for more than 60 years. But there is a reason it still has legs: true or not, people believe it could have happened. The yarn fits with the Kentucky culture where basketball is king and football is simply a way to pass the time until tipoff.

The Wildcats are an anomaly in the SEC, where football is a year-round obsession and anything shy of a national championship is considered a rebuilding year. In Lexington, it's exactly the opposite. Winning on the football field is nice, but basketball is where the passion lies.

Florida might win a couple of NCAA basketball championships, but Billy Donovan isn't more important than Will Muschamp, or even more invaluable than the next offensive coordinator. It's not even a close call. But if Joker Phillips won the SEC East, a fair number of Wildcat fans wouldn't make the trip to Atlanta for the championship if there was a home game at Rupp Arena.

During basketball season, SEC officials thank the heavens for having them. Without Kentucky, the SEC basketball tournament would look like a Jaycee-sponsored high school event. Wildcat fans usually account for more than half the filled seats even when the Wildcats aren't playing.

So, where does that leave the Kentucky football coach?

Usually looking at his cigarette lighter as the basketball coach drives away in a fully-loaded Escalade.

But Phillips knew what he was getting into. Not only did he play at Kentucky, he has spent most of his coaching career there, first as a graduate assistant, and then as recruiting coordinator, receivers coach and finally as Rich Brooks' offensive coordinator.

However, knowing you are entering a Catch 22 doesn't make the job any easier. Fail to win enough football games and, just like any other SEC school, you'll be politely asked to turn in your keys. But winning in Lexington doesn't carry the same weight it does other places. Phillips could capture the SEC and get a nice contract extension, but anyone who thinks he would replace John Calipari on the Wildcat totem pole has been chewing too much bluegrass.

Phillips will be feeling the heat after going 11-14 (4-12 in the SEC) in his first two seasons, especially given the instant success and excitement generated by James Franklin at Vanderbilt. He also will face a fair number of challenges next year.

Linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy constituted the bulk of the Wildcat defense, and both will be gone. Quarterback Maxwell Smith showed some signs of brilliance late in the season, but relying on a freshman and going to a glorified version of the single wing (with wide-receiver Matt Roark taking snaps) for the last game of the season doesn't instill a lot of confidence.

The good news for Phillips is that he beat a battered and bruised Tennessee team, snapping a 26-year losing streak to the Vols. That bought the head coach enough goodwill to get him through October. But the Wildcats will need more W's for Joker to hold onto what he termed his "dream job."

No one expects a BCS appearance from the Wildcats. Most fans would be happy with a 4-4 SEC record and another trip to the Music City Bowl.

But if Phillips stuns the world and turns the Wildcats into a football powerhouse, he does have one thing going for him: Smoking is banned on the Kentucky campus. Nobody would even think of giving him a lighter.