Joker Phillips was introduced as the 36th head coach of the UK football program Jan. 6 at 3: 08 p.m. The time was an ode to the No. 8 jersey Phillips donned as a Wildcat receiver from 1981-84 and marks the beginning of what Phillips coined â€œOperation Win.â€
Phillips, who was the head coach of the offense prior to his promotion, was tabbed to take control of the UK football program in January 2008. After waiting for this moment to finally arrive, Phillips, who has more than 20 years experience as an assistant coach, now has the opportunity to lead his alma mater in his first job as head coach.
For Phillips, a Franklin, Ky., native, the moment was enjoyed with friends and family present. Although he thanked all of the coaches he has had the privilege of working with in his career, he saved a special thanks for the recently retired Rich Brooks, who was in attendance.
â€œI owe the most thanks to Rich Brooks and his wife, Karen,â€ said Phillips, who was visibly emotional when speaking about his predecessor. â€œ(Brooks) has done a phenomenal job…he has a huge effect on me as a person and as a coach and as I take the reins from him, I am confident knowing that he has prepared me well.â€
Later in the news conference, Phillips indicated the best lesson he learned from Brooks was to â€œblock out the noise.â€ Phillips alluded to Brooksâ€™ ability to ignore what critics were saying, especially during the first years of Brooksâ€™ tenure, and to focus on the goals he had set forth.
The task at hand for Phillips is to continue building a program that has aspirations to reach the highest echelon in the Southeastern Conference.
â€œMoving forward, Iâ€™m making a call of service to all those involved in this program directly, and indirectly,â€ Phillips said. â€œWe will begin with what Iâ€™m calling â€˜Operation Win.â€™ This means continuing to strive for excellence in every single area related to the Kentucky football program. This is not about Joker Phillips, this is about we.â€
Some areas that Phillips is looking to focus on is continuing the renewed fan support enjoyed under Rich Brooksâ€™ tenure, and Phillips cited recruiting, not just locally, but also nationally, as a key to making the jump from the middle of the pack in the SEC.
However, Phillips, recognized as a tireless recruiter and former recruiting coordinator at UK, acknowledged that he might have to relinquish some of the recruiting duties, yet insisted he would try to be as active as possible in that area.
Phillipsâ€™ appointment as head coach makes him the second African American head coach in SEC history following former Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom. Phillipsâ€™ promotion also means that all three Football Bowl Subdivision schools in Kentuckyâ€”UK, Louisville and Western Kentuckyâ€”have African American head coaches. Charlie Strong at U of L and Willie Taggart at WKU are the other two coaches, who are also recent appointees.
â€œIâ€™m pretty sure (Phillips) did everything he could to be ready for this day and to keep this program going forward,â€ said UK receiver Aaron Boyd. â€œIâ€™m going to fight for him until the end.â€
For Phillipsâ€™ players, he does bring consistency to the program instead of the usual upheaval that takes place during a coaching change.
For Phillipsâ€™ family, the emotions he showed were shared, too.
â€œItâ€™s overwhelming right now, itâ€™s exciting and itâ€™s been a journey,â€ said Leslie Phillips, the wife of Joker Phillips.
For Phillipsâ€™ boss, this day cemented a decision he made a long time ago.
â€œTwo years ago when we introduced (Phillips) as head coach in-waiting, a very unique deal at that time,â€ said UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart. â€œRegardless, weâ€™re at a spot where we had hoped to be two years ago, with the same characteristics of a guy that we truly believe understands and wants to carry Kentucky football to another level.â€