If Joker Phillips was harboring any bitterness over his pending dismissal at the end of the season, it was hard to tell Tuesday as he addressed the media for the first time since the news of a coaching change at Kentucky.
“I get what we saw Saturday,” said Phillips, whose Wildcats are coming off a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt that not only dropped UK to 1-9 on the season, but also came before an estimated crowd of 25,000 at Commonwealth Stadium. “I get that. It’s a huge part of it. It’s a result-based business. We’re measured by that, and we didn’t get the results quick enough.”
Phillips knew bad news coming when he walked out of the locker room Saturday prior to kickoff and saw such a sparse crowd in the 68,000-seat stadium.
“When I walked out there at the stadium Saturday, that was enough for me. I understand it… I’m not bitter by any means,” he said.
“I came here as an 18-year-old kid, and this place turned me into a man the first time. This time, all it did was strengthen me as a man. It made me understand how important character is. My character got challenged a few times, but it’s taught me how important integrity is, and my integrity got challenged a few times. It showed me how important loyalty is. For that, I’m very grateful and appreciative.”
Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced a change in the direction of the football program on Sunday via an “Open Letter to the Big Blue Nation.” The search for Phillips’ replacement has already begun, but Barnhart decided to allow the UK letterman to coach the Wildcats in their final two games against Samford on Nov. 17 and Tennessee on Nov. 24.
Phillips said he appreciated the gesture, but had some reservations about it initially.
“It was hard because I don’t want to be the distraction,” he said. “I don’t. I’ve had my Senior Day. Somebody said ‘Let’s send him out…” I don’t want an open casket, somebody’s centerpiece. My grandmother-in-law, that’s one of the things that she said. I get that.
“I want it to be about those seniors. Many of those guys, I had sat in their homes, and one of my selling tools was ‘I want to watch you grow up.’ I don’t know how many coaches say that. ‘I want to watch you grow up.’ I had heard that from (the players). That’s the reason I’m back. ‘You said you wanted to watch us grow up.’ That’s the reason I’m doing this… and the only reason.”
Phillips, who played at UK from 1981-84 and served as an assistant coach under Bill Curry and Rich Brooks, said he wasn't sure about his immediate future in the profession, but would continue to support the program he loves.
"I don't have a clue what's next," he said. "... But I think the thing that's best is to step back, to step away, and let the emotions die down."
Phillips remains convinced that UK can build a strong football program.
"This can be a really good place," he said. "But it's going to take everybody to get involved."
Asked if he felt like the administration had given him all the resources to be successful, Phillips was adamant that UK is committed to the football program.
"I never asked Mitch for anything that he didn't give," Phillips said. "All I asked for was things that would help the players... Anything that would benefit the players, he never once said no.
"Bells and whistles don't sell places. They may help a little bit, but they don't sell places."
Steady recruiting, strong upperclassmen and a good quarterback were the keys to UK being successful, he added.