By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
Knoxville, Tenn. — A half-full (or half-empty) Neyland Stadium watched the hapless Volunteers defeat the even-more hapless Cats 37-17 in a battle in which one of them had to ultimately earn its first (and only) SEC win of the year.
Joker Phillips’ UK head coaching tenure ended with a 13-24 record with the loss.
How fitting that it all ended at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, Tenn., and against the dreaded Tennessee Volunteers.
Battles in this stadium and against this team epitomize Phillips’ career as a Cat.
Phillips was a wide receiver for the Cats in 1984 — the last time the Cats had won in Knoxville, and the last time the Cats had defeated the Vols anywhere until last season.
Last season was when Phillips pulled out a win in one of the most unlikely ways ever, with wide receiver Matt Roark playing-quarterback in a surprise victory over the Vols in Lexington.
But, the battle against the team clad in orange has brought some tough moments for Phillips as well.
Phillips has been either head coach or offensive coordinator during a stretch of games against Tennessee in which the Cats have had equal or greater talent. The Cats have had leads and been competitive, but have typically fallen frustratingly short.
Fans lament conservative play-calling in the 2007 four overtime loss to the Vols at Commonwealth Stadium, and they rail over not getting superstar all-everything quarterback/receiver Randall Cobb the ball in the final possession of the 2009 30-24 overtime loss to the Vols.
And then there was the 2010 debacle in Knoxville.
Despite grabbing early control of the game, the Cats found themselves a touchdown behind as the fourth quarter began.
A potential game-tying drive stalled, as the Cats faced fourth down with two yards to go at the Tennessee 37-yard line.
Instead of attempting to convert, Phillips chose to punt the ball. UK punter Ryan Tydlacka booted it in the end-zone for a touchback, which netted the Cats a mere 17 yards on the punt, and the Cats never moved in to Volunteer territory the rest of the game — ultimately dropping the contest 24-14.
Many believe that singular decision to be the tipping point in fan sentiment against Phillips, ending his coaching tenure honeymoon less than one full year after his reign began.
Saturday’s game also typified Phillips’ tenure — so much promise and opportunity, but so little actual fulfillment.
Despite Tennessee using its no-huddle offense to score touchdowns in its first two possessions, the Cats somehow finished the first half with more first downs and total yards while still trailing on the scoreboard.
The Cats had three consecutive chances to erase a six-point deficit. Those three drives for the Cats went 10, 10 and 15 plays each for a cumulative 162 yards gained. Those drives earned the Cats three points.
“The thing we couldn’t do was get the ball in the end zone,” Phillips said. “We had two missed opportunities in the red zone where we just came away with three points, and two fourth down conversions that we couldn’t convert.
“When you don’t convert that is like turning the ball over two times.”
Six minutes of game action later, the Vols had extended the lead to 34-17 to essentially lock up the victory.
Neyland Stadium isn’t intimidating or overly impressive under these circumstances. Cold weather, student Thanksgiving break and fan apathy led to an announced crowd of 81,841 in the stadium that has a capacity of more than 100,000.
All accounts have the actual crowd at least 20,000 south of the announced crowd, but who can blame the fans for not caring about the relatively meaningless contest between programs that are already in the hunt for new leaders.
Tennessee has a tremendous football tradition and the Cats have maintained a spot in the top attendance rankings for several years of late, but both fanbases are ready to just turn the page, thus earning the on-the-field annual battle between the border-state rivals a collective yawn.
Phillips, who was notified of his release three weeks ago, finished the season with class while acknowledging his lack of results.
“I learned a lot during these last three weeks,” Phillips said. “It’s time to go. I understand that.”
Meanwhile, the teams that competed Saturday continue searching for the right fit to lead their respective programs. And that is where the excitement is, as fans speculate on message boards, during holiday get-togethers and on radio call-in shows.
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart addressed the media about the search after the game, with very little in the form of an update. The process is on-going, no offers have been made and he may have others helping him with the decision-making process (or he may not, as he said that information would come out after the decision is made).
After the game, Phillips reflected on the last 10 years he has been with the program — years that have seen a win over a top-ranked opponent, five-straight bowl appearances and the Cats hosting ESPN Gameday.
While admitting he was given a fair chance, Phillips said the next head coach must be given time to get things going again.
“Given a chance, this thing can be good,” Phillips said.