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By Cody Porter
Should he stay or should he go? It’s a question regarding the fate of UK head coach Joker Phillips that has swept the commonwealth even more vigorously since the Cats’ loss to Western Kentucky.
But, with yet another loss — a shutout at that — in the books after a trip to Gainesville, Fla., life may look to mimic art at season’s end.One common denominator amongst all that talk is that Phillips is “a good guy” who bleeds blue.
However, when the surface is scratched on his coaching career, it reveals the obvious: Kentucky Joe’s gotta go.
Since inheriting Rich Brooks’ squad in 2010, Phillips has been a part of a bowl team and a win over rival Tennessee that snapped the longest losing streak to any one FBS opponent.
Those two accomplishments aren’t all that meaningful in reality.
UK’s BBVA Compass Bowl team in 2010 consisted of many “Brooks guys.” At the end of the day it was led by now-senior Morgan Newton, following the suspension of Mike Hartline, and resulted in a 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh, which featured an interim head coach.
That loss seemingly put UK on track to its present condition, which is arguably at its all-time worst for a non-probation squad.
UK’s victory over Tennessee last November was suspected to be a rallying cry after another season of disappointment that concluded with a 5-7 finish.
However, in the grand scheme of things, the Volunteers haven’t been their typical “rocky top” selves since the days of Phillip Fulmer.
Dating back to 2005 Tennessee has only two seasons where it finished more than one game over .500. That’s nothing to write home about, especially when its lone winning record of 7-6 since 2008 is the program’s best.
As has been the case with the history of UK football, the ability to bring in a program-changing head coach is a difficult task. There has to be some proven ability to build a winner in the past before there’s any lure for an outsider.
Many, not all, of UK’s coaching hires have had ties to the program. Others have even had the local ties that fans may have loved.
Phillips’ predecessors of the post-“Bear” Bryant era, who were either fellow Kentuckians or alumni, included Paris-born Blanton Collier (1954-61) and Bryant disciples Charlie Bradshaw (1962-68) and Jerry Claiborne (1982-89).
Given what he has accomplished thus far, Phillips’ timetable for recovery doesn’t bode well compared with his cohorts’.
Collier took over in 1954 for Bryant and led the Cats to a 7-3 season, which he backed up with two additional .500-plus seasons. His final five seasons comprised a series of three-, four- and five-win seasons. Sound familiar?
Far from Phillips’ mentality was the infamous UK Thin Thirty, derived from Bradshaw’s hard-knocks approach to practice that resulted in 58 players leaving the program and 1964 probation for illegal off-season workouts.
Claiborne completed a complete reversal of the program after taking the Cats to two consecutive Hall of Fame Bowl appearances.
When their tenures ended, Collier was the only coach with a record over .500, and that was by the slimmest of margins.
The situation for Phillips could be even bleaker if not for the transition into the head coaching slot provided by UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart. That previously mentioned bowl season provided him half of his current win total.
Projecting ahead into the season, it would take an upset for the Cats to even reach the three-win mark, given they defeat Samford, as expected.
His potential 13 wins wouldn’t be the least through three seasons for a UK coach, nor among the men previously mentioned, but it would be the first without just cause.
No loss of players, probation or any other unforeseen reason has hobbled the Cats under Phillips.
Yet the future is bright for one of his own blue-blooded players, the highly touted freshman quarterback Patrick Towles.
If he leaves because of a lack of playing time, as a Courier-Journal report indicated Sunday, Phillips’ similarities to Bradshaw may end up blaring.
From one Kentuckian to another, fans won’t care how nice or loyal you are if another one of their own, a said “sure thing,” departs when most other aspects of the program are fading.