As the walls seemingly begin to close in on Joker Phillips at Kentucky, his focus remains as keen as it ever was.
And that is taking a program that has historically been irrelevant and finding a way to make it relevant in the strongest college football conference in the land.
“What we’re all working toward is getting this young team better every day, and we’ll have something in the end,” said Phillips, who will take 44 freshmen and sophomores (out of 70 players on the travel roster) to Florida this weekend.
“But, again, you don’t get a long time in today’s world.”
Losses to Louisville and Western Kentucky in the first three weeks of the season would suggest that Phillips’ time might be up unless the Wildcats can stage a stunning turnaround.
One of the classiest guys in the profession, Phillips understands unequivocally the urgency of the situation. But it doesn’t change who he is or how he goes about his business.
“I don’t worry about what might happen. I’ve got way too much to do,” Phillips said. “I’m committed to this program, and I’m committed to these kids. I’m trying to focus on getting them better every day.
“If time runs out on us, I get it. But we’re going to plow ahead.”
This is not new ground for Phillips, who’s in his 23rd year of being involved with the Kentucky football program in some capacity. As a sophomore player in 1982, the Wildcats finished 0-10-1. But as a senior, they won nine games and defeated Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
When Phillips returned to Kentucky for his second stint as an assistant coach in 2003, the Wildcats suffered through three straight losing seasons before reeling off five consecutive bowl appearances.
And even during that stretch when the Wildcats were going to bowl games every year under Rich Brooks, it’s not as if they were lighting up the SEC. In fact, Kentucky has finished with a losing SEC record in 11 of the past 12 seasons. The Wildcats were 4-4 in 2006 and haven’t managed a winning SEC record since 1977.
So at a place where basketball is king, it’s only fair to shed a little perspective on how little success the Wildcats have had in football over the years.
But it’s equally fair to point out that declining attendance numbers, coupled with a loss to an in-state foe that just moved up to FBS status five years ago, is going to put any coach squarely on the hot seat and rankle any fan base.
And make no mistake. The Kentucky fan base is rankled and rapidly moving in the direction of being apathetic. Only 48,346 people showed up for the Wildcats’ home opener two weeks ago at 67,942-seat Commonwealth Stadium. That’s after losing to bitter rival Louisville in the season opener.
Phillips’ message to the fans is the same as it’s been to his team, which has 24 freshmen and sophomores, including seven true freshmen, in its two-deep.
Hang in there.
“The fans who’ve stuck with us and are showing up for games, I’d tell them that I appreciate them,” Phillips said. “The other thing is that we need those fans more now than ever. The older guys may understand the fans bailing on us. It’s hard for a young team to understand that. They don’t understand it when they see fans turning their back on us.
“So I would tell the fans to stick with this young team. They’re going to give you some wows, good and bad. I’ve been a part of this program for a long time, and nobody hurts as much as I do. While I’ve been here, I’ve been through some of the biggest memories of victory as anybody. I’ve been a part of those.
“We’ll get it turned. Just stick with us.”
Phillips said the support from Kentucky’s administration has been tremendous. Dr. Eli Capilouto, the university president, stopped by the football offices one night earlier this week to show his support. Phillips said athletic director Mitch Barnhart has also been extremely supportive.
“We’re doing things the right way, and this place has been one of those that hasn’t always done it the right way,” Phillips said. “They’ve won quick and it hasn’t been the right way.
“We’re doing things the right way and understand how to win.”
Phillips has been a staunch disciplinarian since taking over the program in 2010 and has steadfastly suspended players when they’ve gotten into trouble off the field or embarrassed the university.
“I just don’t believe in taking shortcuts that way,” Phillips said. “The only way kids are going to learn is if you hold them accountable.”
He’s equally committed to playing even more young players as this season progresses. The Wildcats are taking 15 true freshmen with them on the trip to Florida.
“We’re going to do what’s best for the program and what’s best for the kids,” Phillips said. “It’s best to go ahead and play these young guys. We’ve already committed to them.”
In Kentucky’s touchdown drive to tie the Western Kentucky game and force overtime last week, sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith hooked up with true freshman DeMarcus Sweat on a 22-yard touchdown pass. In the same drive, sophomore Demarco Robinson and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins also had key catches.
“Young guys like Sweat are going to get more opportunities,” Phillips said. “They’re going to make mistakes, but you’ve got to give them a chance to play through those mistakes. He’s had four opportunities this season, dropped one, caught three and two of them were touchdowns. The reason he hasn’t caught more is that he hasn’t played much. But he’ll rotate in, if not start, this week.
“It’s hard when you’re playing as many young guys as we are, but it’s the right thing to do.
“We’ll be better off for it down the road.”