By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LEXINGTON, Ky. – In the game of college football, the bottom line comes down to winning. There’s no questioning that fact. But it’s also a people business – it’s about educating young student-athletes and providing them the opportunity to be successful in all facets of life once they graduate.
Kentucky football head coach Joker Phillips understands these facts as well as anyone. That Phillips was unable to record victories against a brutal Southeastern Conference schedule and consistently advance the Wildcats to bowl games each season is the reason he will not be back at the helm of the Kentucky program next season.
That Phillips, a Kentucky graduate, understood the core values behind his job as head football coach is the reason he deserves the finest send-off that his University could give him. Between three different stints in Lexington as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Phillips has devoted nearly a quarter century of his life to the University of Kentucky.
“We poured our all into this, my wife and I did, and we’ll appreciate all the things that went into it,” Phillips said. “We’ll appreciate all the parents trusting in us and we appreciate all the opportunities that we’ve got and the things that we got to do. We’ve done things the right way and we’ve done a lot of things here.”
Phillips was Kentucky’s top recruiter when the Wildcats brought in the players that would eventually set the tone for one of the most successful stretches in program history. Those players included Wesley Woodyard, Jacob Tamme and Andre’ Woodson, among others.
He was the program’s offensive coordinator and then head coach during Kentucky’s school-record run of five consecutive bowl game appearances, including three bowl wins from 2006-08. During the four-season span of 2006-09, Kentucky averaged 7.5 wins per season and defeated two top-10 teams, highlighted by a three-overtime victory against No. 1 LSU in 2007.
Phillips’ players also have been widely recognized for their successes in the classroom, contributions in the community and their character on and off the field.
This is why it was so perfectly fitting when Phillips was carried off the field by his players following a 34-3 win against Samford last Saturday night, the head coach’s final game in Commonwealth Stadium.
“I’m glad I was able to experience that with the seniors,” Phillips said. “All of it touches you because it’s such an emotional time.”
There’s another factor behind the well-deserved send-off Phillips has received in his final few weeks as Kentucky’s head coach, and that’s athletics director Mitch Barnhart.
Barnhart understands, better than most, how much the business of college athletics is truly about people. From all accounts, it wasn’t an easy decision for Barnhart to make in terms of taking his football program’s leadership in another direction.
But in the role of today’s big-time college athletics director, the tough decisions must be made in terms of the greater good of the athletics department. Losing seasons equal more empty seats at Commonwealth Stadium. A lack of revenue generation from the sport of football endangers the ability to fully fund a broad-based championship-level athletics department. Those are the realities.
“In the end, there are realities we must face and overcome,” Barnhart said to fans in an open letter on UKAthletics.com. “Right or wrong, we must respond to those realities to protect the 22 programs and 500-plus student-athletes for whom we provide. Obviously, our football program is not where we want it to be and we are all disappointed; coaches, players, administration and our fans.”
There’s no denying that a change had to be made in the leadership of the Kentucky football program. But what also must be understood and appreciated is all of the things Phillips did during his many years of service to his university.
Sometimes such decisions become personal and contentious. They don’t have to be. These are merely business and personnel decisions.. That’s why Barnhart and Phillips have handled this difficult situation with class and character.
Phillips may not have won enough games to keep him at the helm of the Kentucky football program but Barnhart will ensure that Phillips is always a member of the Big Blue Nation and will always be welcome in Lexington and at the University.
“Joker Phillips has carried the banner for the Blue and White with honor and pride,” Barnhart said. “I have enjoyed working alongside him and am thankful for his friendship for the last decade. His concern for the entire program, his work and teaching of young people, his humanitarian work, and the friendship we all enjoy with him will long surpass the scoreboard.”
When asked Saturday what he would say if any recruits asked Phillips about whether they should still attend the University of Kentucky, the head coach had nothing but glowing things to say about his alma mater.
“It’s a good place,” Phillips said. “You’re going to be surrounded by some really, really, really good players. This is the right place. You chose this place for a reason. You didn’t choose this for us, for coaches. You choose a place because of the players, because of the support people.”
Kentucky fans should be thankful that their program is led by an athletics director who views college athletics as a people business and is committed to honoring hard work and loyalty.
The lasting image of Phillips that should remain is of the head coach being carried off the field after a victory in his final home game. He deserved such a tribute.