One victory in right spot could work wonders for Joker

UK Head Football Coach Joker Phillips will be the feature guest speaker at The Rotary Club of Lexington Thursday, July 12.
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South Carolina figures to roll into Commonwealth Stadium and pound the Wildcats, simultaneously pounding another nail into Joker Phillips’ coffin. He might escape burial yet, but that lid is starting to get really tight – and it could be for want of just one victory.

With an athletics director looking for reasons to keep him, Phillips may have lost his best toehold in the loss to Western Kentucky. Right now, 2-2 looks a whole lot better than 1-3, especially given the fact that 1-4 seems certain to arrive sometime late Saturday night.

That elusive single victory could have saved a number of UK coaches. Fran Curci’s last season was 1981; it followed four straight losing seasons dating back to the 10-1 year of 1977. The Cats opened ’81 with a 28-6 victory over a nothing North Texas team, and then welcomed mighty Alabama.

The Crimson Tide was coming in off a stunning upset loss to a Georgia Tech team that would finish 1-10. ‘Bama eventually went on to win the Southeastern Conference championship that year, the last in the historic run of Paul “Bear” Bryant, who retire at the end of the 1982 season.

The Tide might not have won the SEC crown had it not been for an errant play by the Wildcats, who led for much of the game before falling behind 12-10 on an Alabama field goal in the fourth quarter. The Tide’s kicker then sent a pooch kick down the right hash mark; the UK deep return man thought the up back was going to field it, and vice versa. It bounced between them; ‘Bama fell on the football and eventually scored the game-cinching touchdown.

Word was, had Kentucky won, Curci was going to march into UK President Otis Singletary’s office and demand a contract extension. Instead, before the season was over, he was fired, although the Wildcats pulled off one more upset on his way out – in the season finale, over Tennessee.

Bill Curry finally had a strong coaching staff and excellent recruiting base in place in 1996, and a team very much like the 2012 UK squad – a few talented veterans and a lot of young, raw talent. The latter third of the schedule looked manageable, but the Cats stumbled out of the gate, losing six of their first seven. A 24-3 loss at Cincinnati was especially costly and would have bought more time. Instead, following a 41-14 pounding at LSU, Curry got his pink slip.

Sadly enough, that’s when the young Wildcats finally meshed, upsetting Georgia and Mississippi State, and walloping Vanderbilt. Too little, too late.

Hal Mumme was 2-9 in his final season, but no single victory could have save him, with NCAA investigators pounding on the door.

His successor, Rich Brooks, thought he might have run out of time after his 2006 UK team took a 49-0 shellacking at LSU. Brooks got home from Baton Rouge that night and asked a buddy if he knew of anyone who might want to buy his house. But the Wildcats put an open week to good use, and then went to Starkville and beat Mississippi State, perhaps saving his job. It was the first of a four-game winning streak that helped land the Cats in the Music City Bowl.

As for Phillips’ team, an upset over South Carolina is not likely; a win at home over Mississippi State seemed possible until the Bulldogs opened the season 4-0 – AND they’re enjoying an open date this week, getting in some extra prep for the Wildcats.

Georgia is slated as UK’s Homecoming opponent on Oct. 20. That means the best chance Kentucky might have at a victory that could beat the wolves away from Phillips’ door, however temporarily, could come on the road.

The Cats travel to Arkansas in two weeks, and the Razorbacks are a collective mess. They’ve lost three straight games at home, and visit Texas A&M and Auburn before hosting the Wildcats. By the time UK rolls into Fayetteville, the Hogs may have pulled themselves to pieces. A lot depends on the health of quarterback Tyler Wilson. He came back last week and threw for 400 yards, but Arkansas still lost to Rutgers, 35-26.

Missouri has dropped its first two conference games, to Georgia and on the road at South Carolina. In both games Mizzou started strong but faded. Quarterback James Franklin has been banged up, the Tigers have had a rash of injuries hit their offensive line and they surrender more than 25 points per game. They host Alabama on Oct. 13 but then they get an open date prior to Kentucky’s trip to Columbia.

We’ll know more about both Missouri and Vanderbilt after next Saturday, when the Commodores visit the Tigers. Vandy has this Saturday off after stumbling to losses in three of its first four games, including a 48-3 drubbing at Georgia. The ‘Dores are one of the few “beatable” teams to face the Wildcats which will not be coming off an open date.

After that, Kentucky hosts Samford and then visits Tennessee, which has a coach who, despite his team’s 3-1 record, STILL seems to want him gone.

Joker Phillips would give anything for a 3-1 stretch of games at some point. It’s not likely to begin against South Carolina.

(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.)