Joker Phillips’ UK career ended on the same field where his coaching star first rose – in Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium, during a loss to Tennessee.
It’s the same place where, in the final game of 2004, Phillips, along with then-head coach Rich Brooks and offensive line coach Paul Dunn, called plays in his first game as the Wildcats’ new offensive coordinator.
One of Phillips’ first orders of business the week leading up to that game was booting Jacob Tamme out of his meeting room, the one that housed the wide receivers, and sending him over to the tight ends. It instantly changed the Kentucky offense, as well as the playing career of Tamme, who became a first-team All-SEC tight end and now plays in the National Football League.
The Wildcats threw a scare into the Volunteers that day before succumbing, 37-31. Last Saturday wasn’t quite so dramatic. Tennessee saw UK pull to within 20-17 early in the third quarter before pulling away to a 37-17 victory. The track meet never materialized.
“We knew we might have to outscore ‘em,” Phillips said. “We got behind. It was too much for this young football team to catch up.”
So there was no upset, like the one in 1984. Neyland Stadium is the same field where Phillips played his final regular season game as a Wildcat, when Kentucky beat the Volunteers en route to a second straight bowl game under Jerry Claiborne.
Instead, it was the 10th loss in a season that began with, if not promise, a good dose of entertainment – a no-huddle offense featuring a quick-strike passing game that would set up the rushing attack. But then injuries began to pile up, and so did the losses, eventually costing Phillips and his assistants their jobs.
Tennessee suffered through a similar season, and the Vols’ coaching staff the same fate – fired before the season ended. Only, head coach Derek Dooley decided not to see it through. He chose not to coach his players in their final game. Phillips, of course, opted otherwise, after being reminded by his players of the family-type values he preached during their recruitment.
Phillips stuck it out, drawing kudos from media across the country for the class and poise with which he carried himself through what had to be an incredibly trying situation – whacked by your alma mater, where you’ve been part of the football program for a total of 23 years.
Clearly, it was important for Phillips to avoid giving in to the temptation to lash out. Instead, he took to the high road – so high, in fact, that the classy way he handled his departure might eclipse his myriad of accomplishments as a player and coach.
“It’s been tough for three weeks, but we have been leading up to this, trying to prep our players as to how this thing would happen,” he said, after the team and reporters had left the visitor’s locker room at Neyland Stadium.
“We preached to them how important it is to finish things and how important it is to handle it. The biggest thing is, things happen, but how do you handle them? That’s the thing that most people recognize, is how do those guys handle it? I wanted those guys to understand that.”
He’s seen it before. Phillips signed with and played for Fran Curci, who was fired after Joker’s freshman year (Curci’s last game, of course, was an upset of Tennessee). Claiborne and a new staff would take over the following season.
As a coach, Phillips was on Bill Curry’s Kentucky staff, which was blown out after the 1996 season. And during at least one of his stops as an assistant at Notre Dame, Minnesota and Cincinnati, he came in on the other end of the housecleaning. Believe it or not, he had his successor, who ever that might be, in mind as well.
“I’ve been through it as a player, I’ve been on the other end as a coach coming in, taking over a team,” he said. “There’s some things we were able to leave behind with (his players), to be prepared for the next staff.”
Because of his buyout, Joker Phillips is set for life (assuming he doesn’t suddenly adopt a lifestyle that lands him in an ESPN documentary about frivolous spending). But you can expect to see him coaching again, either in the NFL or the college ranks. And he could have gotten a head start on the rest of his life three weeks ago.
But instead, he chose to stick with his guys – players and assistants, adroitly handling every question that came his way about what went wrong, and how to make things right at the institution he cares so much about.
“It’s a great teaching moment, when things like that happen,” he said. “We wanted to use these last three weeks to be able to teach our guys some valuable, valuable lessons.”
He taught us all.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and radio network. He can be heard each Mon.-Fri. on the Big Blue Insider at 6 pm on 630 WLAP-AM, wlap.com and I Heart Radio.)