(Updates with quotes)
So this is what rock bottom feels like. Familiar? We’ve seen it before. And so has Joker Phillips – from the inside, and more than once.
Saturday’s loss to Western Kentucky may have sealed the fate of Kentucky’s embattled head coach, but it’s doubtful he’ll depart quietly. Phillips has lived through the depths of college football three times at Kentucky, surviving twice.
He’s a long shot to make it a third time, but, hey – upsets happen all the time in college football. And, as the UK coach points out, "I'm built for this."
Phillips signed with the Wildcats in 1981. His first season was Fran Curci’s last, as the Wildcats finished 3-8. In stepped Jerry Claiborne, and the following year was one of the worst in UK football history. The Wildcats finished 0-10-1, a 13-13 tie with Kansas the only thing that stood between the Cats and sheer futility.
"(When we were) 0-10-1, all we talked about is, 'Stay together. We’ll get it turned. Stay together,' " Phillips said. And they did.
The haters hated and the howlers howled, demanding instant change. The game, they said, had passed Claiborne by. There was no hope. Years of darkness lay ahead, they said.
That attitude changed in a matter of months, as the Wildcats ripped off four straight victories to open the 1982 season, en route to a 6-5-1 record and a berth in the Hall of Fame Bowl. At the time, it represented the most dramatic turnaround in Division I football history.
After four seasons playing pro football, Phillips began his coaching career. He was part of Bill Curry’s UK staff, which was blown out in 1996. The roster for Curry’s final team resembled the one Phillips has now: bottom-heavy with young talent, including a bright, home-grown quarterback prospect. Today it’s Patrick Towles; back then, it was a kid named Tim Couch.
"We had a young team when we left, but we (had) had seven years," Phillips said. "I got that. The young team we left behind, two years later, they won seven games."
Curry had made too many mistakes to survive’96, which is why Phillips found himself looking for a job midway through that season. Four stops later, he wound up back at his alma mater working for Rich Brooks, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay. Things looked especially bleak after the 2005 Homecoming game, when the Wildcats lost to a mediocre Ohio U. team. Phillips was reminded of that night by a parking lot attendant on his way into his weekly media gathering, following the loss to WKU.
"I said, 'This out to be good.’ He said, 'That’s the exact same thing Rich said when they got beat by Ohio U, ‘ " Phillips said with a smile.
In '05, the howlers and haters were at it again, this time demanding Brooks’ head on a pike. Never mind the fact that he had inherited an NCAA probation-generated mess and was just a few games into his third year as UK head coach. The Wildcats, riddled with injuries, were stumbling through what would be a 3-8 season. Instant change was the only answer - or so they thought.
Turns out, the answer was patience. Given a vote of confidence by Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart (for once, the term not preceded by the adjective, "dreaded"), Brooks' team broke through in 2006 for the first of four straight bowl appearances.
Phillips’s team has been void (so far) of serious injuries, but there are similarities to the '05 squad. No, he did not inherit a program beset with sanctions. But the attrition that drained Brooks’ last two recruiting classes (2008 and 2009) has had the same effect, rippling its way to the present. And now, Phillips has the same imbalance within his roster that Curry had in ’96 and Brooks had in ’05.
When pressed on how or why those two recruiting classes have left the program in a bind, Phillips would say only, "For some reason or other, that's the way it is."
Brooks’ third team did have 23 seniors listed in the UK media guide prior to the ’05 season. However, there were four walk-ons and seven were transfers – meaning, only 12 scholarship players made it to their senior seasons that year.
Brooks dipped into the junior college ranks for immediate help, signing six that finished up in ’05. Phillips has been more conservative when it comes to the JUCO route; the 2012 roster lists just one junior college transfer, linebacker Kory Brown. It also shows only 16 seniors, including one walk-on and one transfer.
But it shows a wealth of promise among the freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores.
"We put together a young team and we did the right way," Phillips said. "There will not be any investigations and those type things here. We’ve done it the right way and we’ll continue to do it the right way. We’ve got to get better every day and it starts with Florida."
As the final minutes of Saturday evening melted away, so, too, did the hopes of even the most optimistic prognosticators in the Big Blue Nation. Predictions of five or six wins have been replaced with, “Thank goodness for Samford,” and a fan base resigned to a two-win season.
In this “What have you done for me lately” world, any thoughts of victory in “swing” games with Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and even Missouri have vanished.
Youth, it is said, will be served. Meanwhile, youth is serving this Kentucky football team, and serving it well. Three of the biggest plays in Saturday night’s loss were made by youngsters: Sophomore offensive tackle Darrian Miller fell on a fumble following WKU’s fourth interception of Maxwell Smith, keeping alive the Kentucky hopes for a comeback.
And it happened, thanks to a phenomenal catch by redshirt freshman wideout Daryl Collins, which led to the touchdown catch by true freshman DeMarcus Sweat with 24 seconds left, which tied the game. And for all his struggles against the Hilltoppers, Smith, another sophomore, still threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns, marching his team to a field goal in the closing seconds of the first half, and the dramatic, game-tying TD in the second.
That Kentucky team in 2005 had hope for the future, too. The freshmen on that squad included six who would go on to see time on NFL rosters, including Jeremy Jarmon, Garry Williams, Alfonso Smith, Tim Masthay, Braxton Kelley and Ventrell Jenkins. It also featured David Jones, Christian Johnson, Sam Maxwell and a handful of others who would go on to win three bowl games.
The sophomore class was just as impressive: Andre’ Woodson, Jacob Tamme, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons, Jr., Rafael Little, Tony Dixon, Eric Scott – all key players two years later in the most prolific offense in UK history, coordinated by one J. Phillips.
You wonder what the freshmen and sophomores on this team have in store for us when they’re juniors and seniors. Sad reality also has us wondering: Who will be the guy to coach them?
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and radio network and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday-Friday at 6 pm on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)