Now that the breakup between Phillips and the university is official, UK is not only losing its football head coach, it is losing a piece of its program’s history.
Phillips was a wide receiver at UK from 1981-84, ranking fifth in program history in career receptions.
Following three years of professional football (two with the Washington Redskins and one with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts), Phillips began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at UK in 1988.
By 1990 he was the program’s assistant recruiting coordinator, and from 1991-96 he served as UK’s wide receivers coach.
With a handful of years of coaching experience to his credit, Phillips ventured out of the commonwealth in 1997, where he began a six-year stretch as an assistant coach for four different Division I programs (Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina).
By 2003, he had made his way back to the Bluegrass, this time as UK’s lead recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach.
From 2005-09 he served as the team’s offensive coordinator, earning the title of coach-in-waiting during that time.
He was known as one of the premier recruiters in the program, playing a part in the recruiting of former UK stars like Andre Woodson, Stevie Johnson and Randall Cobb.
Beginning in 2006, UK had a stretch of five consecutive years with a bowl appearance, the longest streak in program history. In 2009, when former head coach
Rich Brooks announced his retirement, Phillips finally had the opportunity to be the head coach at his alma mater.
Filled with breathtaking highs and heartbreaking lows, his head-coaching career had been filled with criticism, despite finding varying amounts of success.
“In my current 10-year stay at Kentucky, we’ve had some memorable moments as an assistant, coordinator and head coach,” Phillips said in a statement Sunday.
“We’ve had the opportunity to coach some fine young men and I am grateful to have had the privilege of watching them grow as players, as students and as people.”
Phillips led UK to its fifth bowl appearance in that five-year stretch, losing 27-10 in the 2010 BBVA Compass Bowl to Pittsburgh to conclude a 6-7 campaign.
That year included a 31-28 victory over a ranked South Carolina team, the Cats’ first victory over a Steve Spurrier-coached team in program history, and a three-point loss to eventual unbeaten National Champion Auburn.
Last season, with Phillips still at the helm, the program failed to reach the postseason for the first time since 2005, which at that time was the low mark of the
Phillips era. The Cats lost four SEC games that season by 28 points or more.
But in the final game of that season, Phillips surprised the entire college football world by starting wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback en route to UK’s first victory over Tennessee in 26 years.
Unfortunately for Phillips, his third try wasn’t the charm. A 32-14 loss to Louisville to begin the season was a sour start for fans.
A 32-31 home loss to Western Kentucky as time expired two weeks later did not ease their frustrations.
But it seems the final straw was UK’s 40-0 loss at home to Vanderbilt on Saturday, the Commodores’ largest victory over an SEC opponent in 64 years.
“(UK football) has been in a downfall for some time now,” former UK football player Sonny Collins told the Kernel
. “I would talk to several former teammates and everybody pretty much agreed that a change is good right now. Anything to motivate everyone from the team to most definitely the fans.”
With two games remaining in his career with the Cats, Phillips has a 12-23 coaching record, including a 4-19 record against SEC opponents.
Phillips was known as a player’s coach, and always was popular among the athletes in the locker room.
Whether it was a surprise visit by the ice-cream truck following a hot summer practice or a team field trip to the pool, Phillips prioritized his players enjoying the game, the program and each other.
Following the announcement of his termination, former UK defensive back Randall Burden tweeted, “Thanks coach Phillips for the opportunity to play in the (SEC)!!! He gave me a scholarship just by watching me practice … glad he saw it in me.”
Phillips reciprocated the love his players showed him in his statement.
“We’ve had the opportunity to coach some fine young men,” Phillips said, “and I am grateful to have had the privilege of watching them grow as players, as students and as people.”
It remains to be seen whether Phillips will be allowed to coach out the remainder of the year.
UK has its bye week this week before concluding the season with a home showdown against Samford and a visit to Tennessee to end the year.
After that, Phillips and the program will part ways for likely the final time, withUK and Phillips beginning a new job search.
But as he walks out the doors of Commonwealth Stadium for the final time, fans won’t hear any bitterness from Phillips.
“I appreciate the Big Blue Nation and encourage the fans to stay behind their team going forward,” he said.