New spring, new start: Joker Phillips ready to begin first year as UK football head coach


Joker Phillips is named head coach of the UK football team at Commonwealth Stadium on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

Joker Phillips was introduced as UK’s head football coach on Jan. 6 after spending two years as head-coach-in-waiting. Now, as the Cats prepare to open spring practice on Wednesday, Phillips sat down with the Kernel to talk about his expectations for the team and his time as head coach to this point.

Q. Now that you’ve had a couple months to settle in, what has been the biggest change for you since taking over as head coach?

A. All the non-football stuff has probably been the biggest change. The speaking requests, fundraiser requests, autograph requests, all those things have probably been the biggest things. It takes you away from the football stuff that I’m used to doing.

Q. What kind of changes do you think the players will see from previous seasons?

A. One thing that we’ve tried to stress in this off-season is that we’re trying to take it to the next level. Our goal is to take the next step. It’s being able to consistently beat the Floridas and the South Carolinas and the Tennessees. So we’ve upped the intensity, there’s no doubt about that. The intensity level is up, the accountability is up. We’re holding them accountable to get to where they’re supposed to be, meaning class on time, meaning workouts on time. We’re definitely holding them accountable and we’re also making it a more intense atmosphere and a more competitive atmosphere.

Q. Were you surprised at all when Rich Brooks retired?

A. I was. I thought he’d go at least one more year. But you also have to be expecting it to (happen) when you’re the head-coach-in-waiting. You don’t want to get caught not ready. There was a little surprise that it happened then, I thought it would happen the following year. But we were ready.

Q. How do you feel about your staff? Have the new assistants had smooth transitions?

A. They’ve been great. They really have. The thing about it is two of the guys, I had followed a long time — (defensive line coach) David Turner and (offensive line coach) Mike Summers — so I knew what they were about. And watching (wide receivers coach) Tee Martin handle himself in public and in recruiting, he’s exactly what I thought he was. He’s a stand-up guy. When he walks in the room, you feel his presence. He’s exactly what we were looking for.

Q. Have you decided who’s going to call the plays on offense this year?

A. The offensive coordinator, Randy Sanders, will call the plays. The head coach always can veto, and I’ll definitely try to stay out of the way but there are some things I see too. There are some things I’ll see that I want called on both sides of the ball. As head coach I want to make sure our schemes are sound, make sure fundamentally we’re sound, and make sure we’re playing with effort in all three phases.

Q. Another addition to the staff most people might not know about is strength coach Rock Oliver. What does he bring to the staff?

A. He’s the intensity. He brings the intensity to our program. He’s holding our kids accountable. The strength coaches are the guys who spend more time with them, especially this time of year, than the assistant coaches or the head coach. So it’s so important that he holds them and gets them mentally tough, and that’s what Rock’s doing to our football program.

Q. He’s quite the character. How would you describe him to people who have never met him?

A. He’s a ball of fire, he is. He’s really passionate about what he does, passionate about where he is. This place means a lot to him. He really cut his teeth here too back in the day with (former UK head basketball coach Rick) Pitino, so this place means a lot to him and we feel his passion about this place.

Q. Here’s a question all the fans want to know: Who’s your quarterback next year?

A. That’s a fair question. I don’t know at this point. I think we’ve got three really good options. We’ve got two guys who have won games in this league, in Morgan Newton and Mike Hartline, and a third young guy (Ryan Mossakowski) is as talented as any we’ve been around, so we’re really looking forward to a great competition — and it will be an open competition in the spring. The thing we have to do is try to find out who the top two are early and work those two. It becomes tough to work three quarterbacks, so one thing we have to do is try to find out who those top two are early.

Q. Speaking of the passing game, a lot of fans had hoped for a more aggressive offense last year. Is that something you’re hoping for this year?

A. Yeah, but we have to know who we are, too. We weren’t an offense that we could feel comfortable with throwing the ball all over the yard. We threw the ball a little bit more with Mike (Hartline) in there. … We were throwing the football, and we’re trying to be aggressive in the throwing game, but what happened is we inserted a freshman quarterback. And he is a talented guy, there’s no question about that, but he was definitely limited in what he could convey on the field. It became tough, trying to create a throw game last year with a freshman quarterback. You look across the country at places where freshmen quarterbacks played, like (Southern California). USC won seven games, maybe eight. They hadn’t won seven or eight in a long time, they’d always been at 10 or 11. The reason why? Freshman quarterback. … We had to protect Morgan Newton, I won’t make any bones about that. Morgan might not think that we should have done that and the fans might not think that also, but I would hate to be sitting here with a Morgan Newton who threw 12 or 15 interceptions and seeing his confidence level in the dirt. Now, Morgan Newton’s confidence level is sky-high because he went to Georgia, he went to Auburn, he went to Vanderbilt and came out a winner. If we had tried to throw the ball all over the yard with Morgan Newton in those games, I don’t think the outcome would have come out the way it was.

Q. You talk about ‘Operation Win’ a lot. How would you define ‘Operation Win?’

A. Well, ‘Operation Win’ for our players is winning in the classroom, and that’s getting the best possible grades you can get. We want to win in the community by doing community service. We want to get this community to embrace this football team and let this community know this is their program. The third thing is winning on the field. Winning on the field, doing everything in your power in the classroom, the weight room, and on the practice field to win.

Q. And for the coaches, part of that has to be recruiting, right?

A. No question about that. Winning is recruiting, for fans it’s pumping positive energy into the program. Everybody has a part in what we’re calling ‘Operation Win.’ The first phase of ‘Operation Win’ is recruiting, we finished up recruiting on a positive note. The second phase of ‘Operation Win’ is the off-season, and Rock has done an unbelievable job of getting our team mentally tough and stronger also and well-conditioned. And the third phase will start on Wednesday with our spring practice.

Q. Is there going to be any change in recruiting philosophy from years past?

A. We’ll be more aggressive in the areas I’m more familiar with. The reason why? Those are the areas where my contacts are, so we have to be more aggressive in those areas, the Georgias, the South Carolinas, in Kentucky, one of my stronger areas has been Miami. We’ll be more aggressive in those areas while still working in the areas that we’ve been doing. We’ll be more aggressive in Cincinnati, an area that I’ve coached in and recruited there a few years. It’s only an hour away from here, so we feel like we have to treat Cincinnati like it’s in-state.

Q. When talking about taking the program to the next level, you’ve often said “Why not Kentucky?” What do you mean?

A. When I say “Why not Kentucky?” every year you see a program rise to the top and come out of nowhere and surprise people. And we’ve been close. We’ve been in the SEC race, we just haven’t been in it for a long period of time. Last year, if we win our last game, we’re second in the East. So we want to stay in that race longer, for as long as we can. The way we get there is continue to get better players and continue to develop the players we already have mentally and physically.