UK football season seems strangely familiar

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - A UK football coach in trouble – in his third season, under fire, losing damaged players each week, watching potential victories slip away… We’ve seen this movie before. And it wasn’t that long ago. But the final act played out in a way not many would have predicted.

Rain, falling temperatures, injured players, opening weekend at Keeneland – all of it will conspire Saturday to create what likely will be one of the smallest UK football crowds at Commonwealth Stadium since the building was expanded. And the Wildcats will be double-digit underdogs as well.

A loss to Mississippi State would fan the flames that already have Joker Phillips’ coaching seat wicked hot. His firing, according to the national pundits, is a mere formality looming less than two months away. Closer to home, it’s a conclusion not quite so foregone, but it’s already getting late as we reach the midway point of the season. Something good has to happen for the Wildcats.

It’s eerie how much the 2012 season has paralleled 2005, when Phillips was a part of Rich Brooks’ staff.

In his first full year as Brooks’ offensive coordinator, Phillips had been promoted in the final week of the 2004 season, taking over when the embattled Ron Hudson resigned. Kentucky’s offensive showing in a heartbreaking 37-31 loss at Tennessee made Phillips the talk of the town for months – until the ’05 season began.

That year started with a seven-point loss to Louisville in the closing minutes at Commonwealth Stadium, one of five setbacks in Kentucky’s first six games. And as the year unfolded, UK players limped to the sideline at an alarming rate. Injuries decimated the Kentucky depth chart so dramatically that when the season was over, team doctors performed 35 surgeries on Kentucky football players (some needed multiple operations).

Just as he is now, the head coach came under intense fire from the fan base. Brooks was not a popular hire to begin with and his teams struggled to losing records in his first two seasons. It didn’t help that between years 1 and 2 of the Brooks Era, the administration announced a dramatic hike in ticket prices.

So it seemed inevitable, with the Big Blue Nation raging and the losses mounting, that the head coach would be shown the door, plied with a fat severance check. Only, something unusual happened.

The athletics director didn’t cave to the pressure. He kept his coach. And it paid off.

Mitch Barnhart studied the situation. He took note of the injuries, spent time at football practice, watched the interaction between players and coaches. And then he overheard a quiet moment between sophomore linebacker Wesley Woodyard and Brooks, following yet another disappointing loss: “Don’t worry, coach,” Woodyard said. “We’ll get this turned around.”

Barnhart was sold. He met with the media during the week of the open date and announced his support of Brooks, although he did it in terms not quite strong enough to suit the head coach, damaging their relationship. Still, he kept him, and Kentucky football was the better for it.

Now Barnhart is facing a similar decision, and the ever-shrinking crowds have to be weighing on him. Barnhart has made no secret of his warm feelings for Phillips, a Kentucky native and UK alum who likely would retire here, even if the wins began to pile up and other jobs beckoned.

Just as Brooks did in ‘05, Phillips is dealing with dramatic injury problems. He lost starting quarterback Maxwell Smith four games into the season, after completely reconstructing the offense to suit Smith’s passing ability. Among the other wounded are his top two running backs, a veteran defensive tackle and a linebacker who led his team in tackles last week.

And yet, just as they were seven years ago, the Wildcats have been competitive in each game, and they’ve played hard for their coaches.

Brooks did have to deal with something Phillips encountered only as one of his assistants: Digging out from under NCAA sanctions. The third and final year of the penalties was 2005. The scholarship reductions shackled Brooks and his recruiters, basically reducing UK to the same number of scholarships available to then 1-AA teams.

Phillips has the full count of scholarships available, but unusually high levels of attrition in Brooks’ final two recruiting classes, which we’ve already examined in this space, have left the current Kentucky squad dependent upon first and second-year players, much like a program digging out from probation.

Rich Brooks also had an advantage that Joker Phillips does not: He had Joker Phillips on his staff. As an assistant, Phillips was a talented recruiter, spending much of his time on the road in the deep south, pursuing talent. As the head coach he has an impact on recruiting, of course, signing off on every player UK offers. But because of the duties that come with being the head man, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time in the living rooms of prospective recruits.

Phillips did hire a recruiter with similar talents, but Tee Martin bolted for a better football landscape (and nearly twice the money) when Southern Cal beckoned.

Phillips also is working with a disadvantage Brooks didn’t have: He’s not Rich Brooks.

While Phillips has a long resume’, which includes stops at Cincinnati, South Carolina, Notre Dame and previous experience at UK, he doesn’t have the coaching pedigree (yet) that Brooks brought to the Bluegrass.

Brooks arrived after 38 years of coaching in high school, college and pro football, including 18 years as the head coach at Oregon, which he took from the bottom of the Pac 10 all the way to the Rose Bowl. That’s why he had supreme confidence in the way he conducted himself, and the way he built his program here. He had seen it in action for a lot of years. And it worked.

Phillips likewise believes in himself, his own philosophy and the way he does business. It comes from years working under men such as Brooks, Jerry Claiborne, Lou Holtz. But he’s working in the age of the microwave and social media, when everything is expected to be immediate, and then it’s immediately analyzed – something that didn’t happen to Brooks until the latter stages of his career.

You wonder what it might have been like for Brooks out in Eugene following his second season, if 24-hour news and social media had been prevalent.

The Ducks went 2-9 in each of his first two years. It’s doubtful anyone much cared; Oregon had registered just one winning season since 1965.

His next two teams won six games each (no bowl bids) but then it was back-to-back years again with just two victories each; in fact, five of the next six seasons saw losing records for Oregon. But Brooks got the time he needed and eventually led the Ducks, previously the Pac-10 football equivalent of Vanderbilt, all the way to the Rose Bowl.

Phillips’ every move is scrutinized and dissected. Such is the life of a highly-paid Division I coach these days. And he’s trying to transform a perennial have-not into a consistently relevant program, in a league that happens to be enjoying its strongest run in the history of the conference. The Southeastern Conference has won six straight national championships, with little signs of slowing down.

For all his accomplishments at Kentucky, Brooks fell short when it came to the SEC and he’ll be the first to tell you that. In fact, as he was stepping down and reflecting on everything he’d done at UK, he often mentioned his regret that the Wildcats didn’t win more conference games. Brooks’ teams never did manage to beat Florida, Tennessee or Steve Spurrier.

Phillips snapped the skids against the Vols and The Visor but has yet to beat the Gators. If he’s around next season to try again, it will mean history has repeated itself. The embattled UK coach, in his third season, gets another chance.

It could happen. We’ve seen it before. And it just might work again.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.)