LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Emblazoned on Joker Phillips’ nameplate, which sits on his office desk in Kentucky’s Nutter Training Center, is the inscription, “Til the battle is won.”
That battle, at least from a football sense, is still raging at Kentucky, and it’s never going to be anything but a battle when it comes to making the Wildcats a consistent winner in the SEC.
In this basketball-crazed state, one that’s still aglow thanks to the hoops national championship brought home by John Calipari and his band of one-and-done phenoms this month, football will always reside in the shadows to some degree.
It doesn’t help, either, that the Wildcats are coming off back-to-back losing seasons.
But Phillips, entering his third season as Kentucky’s head coach, has a little different perspective. He’s seen how far the program has come in the past decade, and has been an integral part of the Wildcats’ resurgence.
Prior to last season’s 5-7 finish, the Wildcats were one of only five SEC teams that had gone to five consecutive bowl games. The other four were Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU, which is obviously some pretty exalted company.
And even though it was a struggle the whole way offensively a year ago, it’s the way Kentucky ended the season that gives Phillips and his staff so much optimism for 2012.
“We were a game away from playing in our sixth straight bowl game. Only four other teams had done that,” Phillips said. “We were really close, but it was a down year for us with some of the injuries and losing some of the personnel that we lost, and being as young as we were. I think with another year of growth in our system, and another year of growth with our personnel, we think we can get back to the level that we’ve been at and continue to grow from there.”
Phillips couldn’t be more pleased with the young talent in the program, and he said the Wildcats have stuck by their guns in terms of what they’re looking for in a player.
Toward the end of the season, Phillips said he looked out on defense and there were five true freshmen on the field at various times against Georgia and Tennessee. That experience, not to mention the infusion of new talent, will be vital next season, especially with the Wildcats losing top defensive playmakers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy.
“You look at this last class, and we wanted to find 25 guys who have high character and are highly intelligent, and have ability also,” Phillips said. “Those guys that have all those things will do something every day to improve themselves. Therefore, it’s easier for us to develop them and get them ready to play.
“That’s how we decided to build this thing, and we think these last two classes that we put together have a chance to be two of the best classes to ever play here, and we’re already working on a third straight.”
The disappointment of not going to a bowl game last season was tempered by what happened on the final Saturday of the regular season in Lexington.
After 26 straight losses to Tennessee, Kentucky finally ended that drought by beating the Vols 10-7, and did so with senior receiver Matt Roark stepping in and playing quarterback after Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton were unable to play because of injuries.
Phillips was a player on that 1984 Kentucky team that had last beaten Tennessee, and he’d also been on the losing end to the Vols 15 different times as an assistant coach or head coach.
So, it goes without saying that he suffered as much as anyone through all those losses to the Vols.
“I’d been in a lot of those meeting rooms, war rooms, whatever you want to call it, and trying to get a plan together to beat those guys,” Phillips said. “Never did I think when I left here in 1984 that that would be the last time that we would beat Tennessee in 20-something years.
“A lot of the ex-players who left in 1984 can sit and criticize those teams, but I was a huge part of it. I was in there trying to get those players prepared to beat those guys. So, yes, there was a lot of pain. It didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t sit well with our fans, and I understand that.
“Maybe we can start our own streak now.”
It wasn’t just that one win against Tennessee that reassured Phillips the program was headed in the right direction.
A week earlier, Kentucky went toe-to-toe with eventual Eastern Division champion Georgia on the road, before falling 19-10, and opened the month of November with a 30-13 blistering of Ole Miss.
“The way we finished, period, was encouraging -- playing well against Georgia and then beating Tennessee,” Phillips said. “The thing I liked about the Tennessee game was that we got to see some seniors go out the right way. Every senior that played on defense made plays, but there were a lot of young guys who played, too.
“And for those young guys to have success carried through to the offseason, and that momentum has shown this spring. It’s shown in the way they’ve worked, and now it’s starting to show in their confidence level and the way they’ve played this spring.”