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The UK football team has never had a high ceiling for success in the Bluegrass. Despite playing in the almighty Southeastern Conference, home of the NCAA’s last six national champions, the Cats have never had to do much more than finish at .500 and reach bowl eligibility to appease its fans.
But no matter how low the ceiling is, it always hurts when that very ceiling is in freefall, swiftly approaching a destructive collapse around the entire program and its fan base.
Four weeks into a new season, that is where head coach Joker Phillips and the UK football program is heading.
The consensus throughout the commonwealth is that Phillips is a good assistant coach and a great person, but certainly not the right man to be commanding the university’s football program.
Phillips took over the program in 2010 following the retirement of former UK head coach Rich Brooks. At the time, UK was in the midst of four consecutive seasons of bowl eligibility and superstar wide receiver Randall Cobb was on the brink of the biggest season of his college career.
So if you were to tell fans at the time that in just three short years Phillips would take the team from consistently competitive to national bottom-feeder, what would you expect their reaction to be?
UK already has lost to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers of the Sun Belt Conference this season, arguably the program’s worst loss since one at home to Ohio University in 2004.
But that 2004 team still was recovering from NCAA sanctions handed down following former head coach Hal Mumme’s recruiting scandal at the turn of the century. Fans certainly weren’t pleased with the disgraceful loss, but they at least understood.
To say that Phillips, who took over following somewhat of a renaissance, faced the same challenges as Brooks early in their coaching tenures would be dramatically refuted by most in the Bluegrass. While Brooks took the team from scandal-prone to a consistent winner, Phillips has dragged the team back to its old, inconsistent, unsuccessful ways.
Before the start of the season, starting freshman cornerback Marcus Caffey was suspended for the season because of academic issues. He is not the first player in the Phillips regime to miss critical games for unnecessary off-the-field issues, and he certainly would not be the last.
A month and a half later, three weeks into the season, just minutes before the kickoff of the game against WKU, it was announced that two UK players — junior running back Raymond Sanders and freshman wide receiver Bookie Cobbins — would sit out the game because of a violation of team rules. The two were dressed and back in action just one week later. Their momentary absence was likely because of their Sept. 13 citation for marijuana possession in which the two were accompanied by Caffey.
This kind of off-the-field trouble is never going to fix UK. At its best, the ceiling was still low. At its best, the UK football program was celebrating appearances in bowl games that most other SEC teams would consider a failed season. So unlike teams such as Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn, LSU or any other perennial powerhouses from the south, UK cannot afford off-the-field issues, and Phillips should know this.
What’s worse is that UK is more talented than the product on the field would lead fans to believe. While serving as Brooks’ offensive coordinator, Phillips was among UK’s most talented recruiters. Phillips has brought in UK’s best recruiting classes, but it does not translate to the field because of coaching, lack of experience or lack of confidence.
Still, with a wealth of talent on the roster and a program on the upswing at the time, Phillips showed a lack of authoritative control and coaching discipline en route to leading the program into the ground.
Even with his job on the line, players do not look like they are playing for Phillips, and Phillips also does not seem to be taking any extraneous measures to preserve his own job.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart has already expressed his desire to pay big money for a high-profile coach to come to UK and turn around the program. For a program like UK, that is easier said than done.
But no matter who Barnhart has in mind, it can’t be Joker Phillips: a good man, a proud alumnus, but a mediocre head football coach at best.