Joker Phillips, Willie Taggart on divergent coaching paths

Immediately after the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers baffled the Cats with a trick play on a game-winning two-point conversion in overtime, college football pundits christened head coach Willie Taggart as the country’s newest hot coaching commodity.

A lot of folks on Twitter took the logical step of suggesting Taggart as the replacement for Joker Phillips, once they had finished tossing the dirt on the grave of his UK coaching career.

The problem I have with that suggestion is UK has already hired Willie Taggart — the Wildcat version of him, anyway.

Taggart was a four-year starter at quarterback for WKU from 1995 to 1998. Upon graduating, the Division I-AA All-American took an assistant coaching position at his alma mater, ascending to assistant head coach in 2003. After spending three years as running backs coach at Stanford, he returned to Bowling Green to accept the head coaching job.

Joker Phillips’ bio reads pretty similarly. He played four years at UK, took a coaching position at his alma mater soon after graduating, left to coach elsewhere, returned to UK as offensive coordinator and was eventually named head coach.

It seems the two have taken parallel paths to where they are now. What isn’t parallel is the on-field product.

On Saturday night, Western looked like the more physical team, pushing UK around the field, breaking tackles and ultimately powering to a victory.

More notably, it looked like the more passionate team.

UK head coach Joker Phillips and WKU head coach Willie Taggart seem to have a lot in common in terms of coaching history, but Taggart’s team’s on-field performance trumps Phillips’ squad. (Photo by Brandon Goodwin)

Taggart’s team seemed to play with a confidence never before seen on a Kentucky sideline. Players considered less talented than the boys in blue overcame any apparent skill deficit by sheer force of will. They lusted for victory.

The team has taken on Taggart’s personality. He’s a prideful guy, bent on proving himself to the world. He made clear this week that he loves his alma mater, questioning why students attending WKU would wear UK apparel. After Hilltopper quarterback Kawaun Jakes caught the throwback pass from running back Antonio Andrews and sauntered into the end zone, Taggart reacted like he had just won the Super Bowl.

Phillips also has displayed passion for his school and team, but maybe never to the level of Taggart. Emotion crackled in Phillips’ voice when he implored fans to show up and support the team. He’s shown elation in victory and disgust in defeat.

For whatever reason, Phillips’ brand of passion hasn’t translated to the field. Maybe that’s a condemnation of his ability to lead. Maybe it points to a lack of commitment to winning by the players. I don’t think either can be claimed with certainty at this point in the season, but it’s clear something isn’t working.

There’s no doubt Joker has a steeper hill to climb than Taggart. To succeed, Phillips must knock off SEC football factories; Taggart only has to win in the Sun Belt, and to thrill the nation, beat UK.

Taggart is sure to net some job offers at season’s end, and one of those may be from UK. Who knows, he might elect to stay at his alma mater, depending on how much the program means to him and how much the athletic department is willing to pay.

But if and when UK is looking for someone like Taggart, remember that it already has someone that should be like him.

For whatever reason, it’s not working out.

Alex Forkner is the Kernel’s assistant opinions editor. Email him at