Phillips named eventual successor to Brooks; head coach gets extension

More than 20 years ago, Joker Phillips had a decision to make.

As family members and friends advised Phillips on where to go to college, it took a simple question from his mother to reveal his choice.

“My mom came to me and asked, ‘Joe, where do you want to go?’ I told her that I wanted to go to Kentucky, always have,” Phillips said. “It wasn’t the popular choice of many of my friends and family, but it was where my heart was.”

Phillips’ decision more than two decades ago in his hometown of Franklin, Ky., came full-circle Friday.

In what head coach Rich Brooks and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart called a move of “continuity and consistency for current and future players,” Phillips was named the eventual successor as the head coach of UK football once Brooks decides to leave the position.

“To have the opportunity to someday lead this program is real special to myself and my family,” Phillips said. “The thing is, I appreciate the support of everybody. The journey has been fun.”

Phillips, UK’s offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, was named the successor at a news conference Friday, which President Lee Todd attended. Barnhart also announced that Brooks will receive a contract extension through the 2011 season and will receive a pay raise to $1.6 million a year.

“I’m really thankful that Dr. Todd and Mitch (Barnhart) believed in this program,” Brooks said. “I made a statement when I came here when Mitch hired me that I wanted to do the same thing here that we accomplished at the University of Oregon during my tenure. … I believe we’re on a solid foundation in this program.”

The announcement of a succession plan and Brooks’ contract extension comes three weeks after UK completed its second consecutive 8-5 season and first back-to-back bowl victories since the 1950-51 seasons. The Cats beat Florida State in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl on Dec. 31.

Leading up to the bowl game, there were rumors that Brooks, 66, would  retire. Following the victory, Brooks reiterated what he has said throughout the season: that he wants to leave UK as the longest-tenured coach in school history.

For Brooks to accomplish his goal, he will have to coach five more seasons. Fran Curci has the longest tenure and coached for nine seasons at UK from 1973-81.

As UK continued to have success in the 2007 season, other reports surfaced that Phillips, 44, was generating a lot of interest for head coaching vacancies at other schools. With the program’s future facing speculation, Barnhart and Brooks decided a succession plan needed to be in place.

Succession plans are highly uncommon in college football, but it appears the move will keep Phillips in Lexington until Brooks steps down.

The UK offensive coordinator had several opportunities to coach at other programs, according to Brooks, but Phillips said UK and working with Brooks is where he always wanted to be.

“He’s hard to leave,” Phillips said of his head coach.

Todd added his support of the decision and commended Brooks for the job he has done in rebuilding the football program over the last five years.

“Coach Brooks has built this program the right way, with hard work and integrity,” Todd said in a news release. “Joker Phillips has played a major role in that effort and I’m proud to see one of our own poised to take the reins of this program. He deserves it and, frankly, we could not find a better candidate to lead UK football into the future.”

Phillips will begin that future whenever Brooks decides to step down. At that point, Phillips will then be offered the job, Barnhart said, citing the contract they signed. The details of the coaching contract, specifically the salary, will not be addressed until Phillips is offered the position, Barnhart said.

When Phillips takes over as head coach, he will become the second black head coach in Southeastern Conference history. He will also be the first black “coach-in-waiting,” Brooks said.

“It’s historic for the University of Kentucky,” Brooks said. “I think it’s historic obviously for the SEC and for college football.”

Phillips has been UK’s offensive coordinator for three seasons. He, along with Brooks, has helped transform UK from a perennial bottom-feeder in the Southeastern Conference to one of the nation’s most potent offenses.

Under Phillips’ tutelage, the Cats’ offense has improved in each of the past three seasons. UK led the SEC in passing offense (287.9 yards per game) and ranked fourth in scoring offense (36.5) this season. The Cats’ scoring average was the second-highest in school history, trailing only the 1998 team that posted 37.9 points per game.

Phillips has never been a stranger to the program. He played at UK from 1981-84, primarily as a wide receiver, and was on the football staff form 1988-96, serving several roles as an assistant coach. Phillips returned to the program in 2003 after coaching stops at Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina. He also has three years of professional experience as a player.

Phillips will try to continue the Cats’ success as offensive coordinator under Brooks. Once the time comes, Phillips said, he will be ready to take the reins as head coach.

“When Rich is ready to go fishing,” Phillips said, “I’m looking forward to someday running this program.”