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By Ethan Levine | @KernelLevine
The last time UK’s football team took the field, it experienced a historically bad loss at home in front of a historically small crowd. For many in the Bluegrass, it was the football program’s lowest point in recent history.
But a new dawn has begun for the Cats, and the sun may just begin to peak out over the horizon. Since that bleak Saturday afternoon, the football program has fired head coach Joker Phillips and regrouped during an open week. The time off was much-needed by the Cats, and the termination of Phillips is the end of a saga that has overshadowed much of the season.
Now detached from its eight-game losing streak and the firing of its head coach, UK can approach the final two weeks of the season as a clean slate. Phillips accepted an opportunity from UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart to coach out the remainder of the season, beginning Saturday with a matchup against Division I-AA Samford on the team’s senior day.
Traditionally, senior day is meant to honor the outgoing seniors for their service to the program throughout their respective careers. As the team’s final home game of the season, it is the last chance for these departing players to play in the stadium that served as the setting for most of their careers, to play before the fans that supported them since their arrival in Lexington.
In addition to UK’s senior class, Phillips will also be coaching for the final time in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday. But for Phillips, he is not coaching like it is his senior day.
As far as UK’s lame-duck coach is concerned, Saturday should have nothing to do with him. It’s not why he elected to coach in the Cats’ final two games.
“I don’t need any treatment, special treatment or anything,” Phillips said. “It’s not my senior day. I want those guys that have been here and given all they have for this program to be rewarded.”
But don’t tell Phillips’ team it shouldn’t be playing to win for its head coach. As much as Phillips wants to coach his seniors to a win on their senior day, his entire squad wants nothing more than to send Phillips off on a high note as well.
“Now it’s just like, ‘We’re doing it for us,’ ” junior defensive tackle Tristian Johnson said. “This is the last time a lot of us are going to be together with Coach Phillips and with the senior class. So you just got to do it for this group, and we’re just going to keep on working as a group.”
Senior defensive end Collins Ukwu will be playing to share in a memorable victory with his head coach as both prepare to leave the program.
“It’s crazy how (Phillips) brought me in, then I saw when he became a head coach, and now he’s leaving,” Ukwu said. “It’s just crazy how it happened, but at the same time I am so happy for him, and the things that he has done made me a better man as well. I just want to thank Coach for everything.”
Phillips said senior wide receiver Gene McCaskill texted him following his termination to thank him for “saving his life.” Phillips shrugged off the notion that he saved McCaskill’s life as a role model in the program, responding with, “‘Thanks for taking the opportunity to save your own life.’ It’s not about me; it’s about him and what he did. (He) took advantage of an opportunity.”
This kind of an off-field relationship between Phillips and his players made him beloved. It’s those sentiments that make Phillips one of the most popular lame-duck coaches with any fan base in recent history. What Phillips failed to accomplish on the field may have cost him his job. But the impact he made on hundreds of young men throughout his time in the program will last forever.
“I am happy for (Phillips) teaching me different values while I’m here,” Ukwu said. “Letting us learn how to tie our tie and manage money and things like that. These are things that he probably doesn’t talk about in the media. But he told us when he is gone he wants us to be a better man.”