Last January Rich Brooks announced that he was retiring as Kentucky’s head football coach after seven seasons. He was replaced by offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, who had been the head coach in waiting for two seasons.
“There is no doubt that coach Brooks set the bar pretty high but our job is to take what he has done and build on it,” Phillips said on a recent visit to Atlanta. “He told me I was ready and I feel ready.”
Brooks left Kentucky with a record of 39-47 but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of what he accomplished In Lexington. Consider:
**–The University of Kentucky has two coaches (Paul “Bear” Bryant, Jerry Claiborne) in the College Football Hall of Fame. Another Wildcat coach, Blanton Collier, left Kentucky and won an NFL championship with the Cleveland Browns in 1964. None of those coaches ever took Kentucky to four straight bowl games. Brooks did.
**–Brooks inherited a program devastated by NCAA sanctions. He struggled for three seasons and in 2006-2007 Kentucky posted back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time in 30 years.
**–In 2007 Kentucky beat No. 1 LSU and No. 9 Louisville, the first time in school history that the Wildcats had beaten two Top 10 teams in the same season.
**–Last season the Wildcats, after beating both Georgia and Auburn on the road, were in a position to get an invitation to the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. But a 30-24 overtime loss to Tennessee sent Kentucky to the Music City Bowl.
“That one hurt,” Brooks told me when I saw him a couple of weeks later. “That one hurt a lot.”
After Kentucky’s loss to Clemson in Nashville Brooks, who turns 69 this August, decided the time had come to turn the program over to Phillips. Phillips played at Kentucky for Claiborne and has better appreciation than most of what the school has accomplished in the past four seasons and what it could still do.
“We have come a long way but we still have a long way to go to compete for the (SEC East) championship, which is our goal every year,” said Phillips, who started his coaching career at Kentucky and then made stops at Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame, and South Carolina before returning to Lexington as recruiting coordinator in 2003.
Since Phillips took over as offensive coordinator in 2005, Kentucky has been good—and sometimes great—when it comes to moving the football. His 2007 offense, led by quarterback Andre Woodson, set a school record with 475 points.
The 2010 offense looks like it could be another good one. When quarterback Mike Hartline got hurt last season, Phillips and Brooks took the redshirt off Morgan Newton, who was the Indiana high school player of the year in 2008. Kentucky scored 34 points against Georgia and 24 against Monte Kiffin’s Tennessee defense. Both quarterbacks return along with wide receiver Randall Cobb, who is a big weapon out of the “Wildcat” formation.
Four starting offensive linemen are gone.
“We’ve got some work to do there,” Phillips said.
The bigger concern is over on defense where Trevard Lindley, one of the nation’s best cornerbacks, is gone along with Micah Johnson, an All-SEC caliber linebacker. Seven starters are back from a unit that was No. 53 nationally (359.69 ypg).
“We have had good players at Kentucky who can compete and win at the SEC level,” said Phillips. “But we need more and it’s our job to convince them that Kentucky is the right place for them.”
Phillips is known as a tireless recruiter. Since he arrived, Kentucky has gone into Georgia and done very well. The Wildcats have a virtual pipeline of players out of LaGrange. Lindley was from Hiram. Last year’s Kentucky squad had 19 players from the state of Georgia.
But in order to keep things moving forward, said Phillips, Kentucky has to win its own state and that means having success in Louisville, where his friend, former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, has just taken over as head coach.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Phillips said of the recruiting battles to come.
Phillips has a chance to get off to a pretty decent start at Kentucky. Everybody in the SEC East has some issues. The Wildcats don’t play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas, which look like the three best teams in the Western Division. If the Wildcats can win their opener at Louisville on Sept. 4, they have a decent chance to go 4-0 in non-conference games as Western Kentucky, Akron, Charleston Southern are the other three opponents outside the SEC. A fifth straight bowl does not seem out of the question for Kentucky.
“Our job is to move the program forward,” said Phillips. “We took a big step forward under coach Brooks. Now we need to take another one. We showed that we can compete with any team in this league. Now we need to prove we can beat people on a consistent basis. I’m excited.”
Will Kentucky fans be excited as well? They should be.
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