Can Phillips take Kentucky to the next level?

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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74 comments Add your comment


April 7th, 2010
8:51 am


April 7th, 2010
8:52 am

Joker’s wild.

The Rifleman

April 7th, 2010
8:52 am

I’m not sure a town that is as racist as Lexington will accept Joker. Kentucky fans take their marching orders from Adolph’s ghost and we know what a bigot he was. Exhibit A: They never accepted Tubby even after he won a national title.


April 7th, 2010
9:06 am

Joker is a good guy and will do well after a GREAT coach and leader in Brooks


April 7th, 2010
9:19 am

Seems like the state of Georgia supplies talent to most of the schools in the SEC. We need to be sure that the very best players in the state end up playing for UGA.

Pago Pago Trojan

April 7th, 2010
9:19 am

the rifleman is “nuts”!


April 7th, 2010
9:35 am

Kentucky will finish 3rd in the SEC East behind Florida and South Carolina. They will beat Georgia again and take down Tenn this time.


April 7th, 2010
9:41 am

War Eagle! It’s Great to be an Auburn Tiger. We’re gettin’ ready to kick some butt.


April 7th, 2010
9:46 am

“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.”

Impressive indeed


April 7th, 2010
9:49 am

As a Georgia fan, glad to see the other guy gone……and our own Martinez gone. Here’s hoping average teams will have trouble hanging 40 on us from now on. Geez


April 7th, 2010
9:53 am


I live in Lexington and you are a liar and an idiot.

My bet is that YOU are the one with the KKK robe and hood hanging in the closet getting ready for your Saturday night meeting.


April 7th, 2010
9:56 am

Joker Phillips should have Kentucky playing real good football in the future. How long can he do it is the question. Kentucky is just like UT having to recruit outside its borders to get good football players to come play for them. As to kicking some butt Eric the cow college is due for a beating like a red headed step child from the national champion ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE!! RTR


April 7th, 2010
10:40 am

Thanks, Tony. Nice to see a fair assessment of UK football in the AJC.


April 7th, 2010
10:46 am

How is going 39-47 turning around a program? There are 32 bowl games, so going to 4 straight is no big deal. If they had gone to four straight BCS bowls, I would be impressed. Maybe they can beat TN this year. I don’t think I will be around in 33 years to watch them win again in Athens.


April 7th, 2010
10:53 am

KY football is like Duke and NC,, it’s a second fiddle sport.

Delbert D.

April 7th, 2010
11:05 am

The next step after beating Georgia last year is winning the East, I guess. That’s a stretch.


April 7th, 2010
11:21 am

It’s an accomplishment because this is Kentucky Football.

I’m 38 and have seen a lot of HORRID football in my lieftime (claiborne’s team’s were mostly good)

I agree that the bar to get to a bowl is a lot lower than it used to be back in the day but UK Football has posted some tangible wins under Coach Brooks that they would have formerly lost (LSU upset, road wins over Auburn UGA) or, worse, not even been in a position to plan (Bowl wins over Clemson and Fla St come to mind).

I’m a lifelong UK fan who’s always liked the sport of football MUCH more than basketball (lots of suffreing here, yes) so I’m VERY grateful to UK playing RESPECTABLE SEC FOOTBALL these days….



April 7th, 2010
11:21 am



April 7th, 2010
11:40 am

Fire Paul Hewitt……….Drads wake up !


April 7th, 2010
11:44 am

Murfdawg: Are you kidding me? You obviously don’t appreciate the job that Brooks did with that program. They were absolutely bottom of the barrel when he got there. Once he got his guys in there buying into everything and had a little bit of depth finally, they go to 4 straight bowls. Don’t quote the guy’s overall record…that’s not an indicator of what he did. Look at his last 4 years as the result of all the hard work he put in.

As a Bulldog fan, I can definitely appreciate the job Brooks did as well as the job Bobby Johnson does on an annual basis.

SEC Observer

April 7th, 2010
11:51 am

The top ten most overpaid college football coaches may be of interest:


April 7th, 2010
12:01 pm

and **YES** thank you Tony B for this article — It inflames my nether-regions when I think about how UK football CAN be a consistently solid program!! The opportunity that UK has to be a factor in the SEC is as good, if not better, than it has been in 50 some years…..for the first time in a LONNNNG TIME (LONG TIME, GI!!) UK has an AD that’s anything but “Basketball first”

I just to THINKING about football and it’s like smathering honey all over my innards!!!!!


I freakin LOVE this country!!!!!


April 7th, 2010
12:15 pm

Rifleman, you don’t know what you are talking about. You are blinded by color. And yes, you are a racist!


April 7th, 2010
12:19 pm

The “Rifleman” is somewhat correct and this is from a Lexington native. I wish Coach Phillips the best, but I hope those die hard UK fans don’t try to bring out the nooses after the first season if things are not “to their likin’”.


April 7th, 2010
12:33 pm

UK isnt a guaranteed win anymore. I understand fans will always talk crazy but you guys should ask coaches round the league theyll tell you how far UK has come.

also there is racists in everyone of the states in the SEC

[...] dominant.10.  Tight end looks to be a position of strength for the Dawgs.11.  Can Joker Phillips take Kentucky to the proverbial next level?12.  Will receivers Aaron Boyd and EJ Fields finally make an impact for UK this year?13.  John [...]

Roy D. Mercer

April 7th, 2010
12:41 pm


1) Has UGA ever had a black head coach? At least UK hired an African American HC in BOTH basketball and football.
2) Tubby got more than a fair shot after winning a NC. His issue was the fact that after Pitino’s players graduated he could never return to that level and his recruiting classes became progressively worse and worse. UK fans respect and admire Tubby, but his time as the captain of one of Flagship Programs in the country had passed.
3) I live in Georgia now and can assure you that bigotry supercedes what you find in Kentucky.

Bobbi Dud

April 7th, 2010
1:05 pm

Roy, Tubby was at Georgia before he coached at Kentucky. Kentucky will never have a great football team not because of the color of the coach but because they don’t have the players and probably never will! Delta is ready when you are Roy!

'Bama 1

April 7th, 2010
1:24 pm

Eric, I’ve heard those lines before! CHEESESTICK is a loser and if you’re an auburn fan you are too!

Gee, Roy D. Mercer...

April 7th, 2010
1:28 pm

…Guess you were buried under a rock the past 6 years while Dennis Felton, another African-American, was head basketball coach at UGA…that makes 2 black head coaches in basketball at UGA…


April 7th, 2010
1:43 pm

How many bowl games were there in 1963? Not exactly and apples to apples comparison.

Rocky Top

April 7th, 2010
1:43 pm

Not much of a comparison between the Bear, Clairborne and Brooks going to Bowls. There were very few bowls when the first two were there and when Brooks was there there were as many as there are towns.


April 7th, 2010
1:53 pm

I’m with you Rocky Top. The state of Florida hosted 6 by themselves this past year.


April 7th, 2010
1:55 pm

It’s funny that SEC teams are calling each other racist. Every fan base has that 5% that gives the rest a bad name. Joker isn’t being judged cause he’s black, he will be judged by his on field results. Sly Croom was fired at Miss St, not for race, but for record.

F-105 Thunderchief

April 7th, 2010
1:55 pm

In a word: No.

Roswell Dawg

April 7th, 2010
2:07 pm

When Bear Bryant and Jerry Claiborne coached at Kentucky there weren’t 30+ bowl games. When the Bear was there, their were probably only about 6 so getting to a bowl game then meant a lot more than it does today.


April 7th, 2010
2:08 pm

Having spent some time in Cincinnati a few years ago on a project and getting around Ohio and down into KY and Lexington area do any of the UK people have any insight on recruiting in Ohio. That is a football crazy state-with a lot of good players. UK is only a short drive for a lot of them. If I was coaching there I would try to go in there and lure some away from the BIG 10. While the buckeyes have a good stronghold in there the lure to play in the SEC for an SEC champ and to go play at places like “The Swamp”, Knoxville, “between the hedges”, “death valley”, Tuscaloosa etc. etc. has to have some attraction. I scanned UK’s 2009 roster-one guy from Ohio, a handfull from Indiana and PA. Also Detroit and Chicago are within striking distance. Maybe the mindset of the kids from those areas are anti-UK for reasons posted on here already but if UK made some inroads/pipelines of recruiting into any of those areas that would be big.

All I'm Saying Is...

April 7th, 2010
2:13 pm

Granted there were fewer bowl games long ago but the competition for top athletes was not as keen in the Kentucky days of Bear and Claiborne either due to scholarship limitations imposed by NCAA in mid to late 1970s. What Brooks did was impressive especially given where football was after Hal Mumme left the school.


April 7th, 2010
2:36 pm

UK fans in Lexington have already accepted Joker, hes been an assistant coach and played at uk.


April 7th, 2010
2:41 pm

I’d like to say UK is irrelevant but after beating us in Athens last year I will reserve comment.


April 7th, 2010
2:44 pm


UK has had more success “going South” with their recruiting than concentrating on Ohio. Ohio has always been more Big Ten oriented. More often than not, they are fighting the MAC schools for Ohio kids, rather than Ohio State or Michigan. The South seems to have a lot of sleepers that develop into really good SEC players.

Sec observor

April 7th, 2010
2:47 pm

At least the mildcats can beat Georgia with regularity. They are 1 hail mary pass away from having beaten the dawgs 3 out of the last 4. I expect the mildcats tradition of beating Georgia to continue.

Brad in KY

April 7th, 2010
3:17 pm

@Gator 88: Joker Phillips has stated that he wants to make the Cincinnati area a recruiting emphasis since it’s only a little more than a hour from Lexington and virtually in KY. Last season, UK opened the season in Cincinnati with a neutral field game against U of Miami, OH. So, I expect to see more OH players on the roster in the near future.


April 7th, 2010
3:43 pm

I think UK was the first SEC school to have a black athlete on thier football team, and among the first to have a black bb player. During Rupp’s early era having a black player on your team might have been an invitation to having him get killed, and NOT in Kentucky. He wouldn’t have been able to eat with the team on road trips. He tried to get a couple of outstanding players before he got one, (would have to have been outstanding both as a player and person, a la Jackie Robinson) but they didn’t want the hassle or danger, understandably.

Tubby was a great floor coach, but lost his zest for recruiting. His one NCAA title was with Pitrino’s players. His record at UK would have been fantastic at almost any other SEC school. It wasn’t up to standard at UK.

Most of you have no idea where UK’s program was when Brooks took over, largely because of probation. Morris had one good year, but his one recruiting class had one four star (who was a bust) and ONE three star recruit, the rest two stars. Contrast with MSU, a lower program that had 22 four star recruits over the last five years and Bama, which had 68 four AND five star recruits over the last five years. (I don’t understand that, 4* Goode is an example of a player that could have been a star at UK but is buried behind a Heisman winner and possibly an even better backup at Bama.) UK had five four stars on their active roster last year. But their recruiting has steadily improved.

Joker is a great recruiter. He has made three great hires for recruiting. He is emphasizing recruiting in Ohio. He will have a pretty solid team this year, some stars coming up, and he has two outstanding prospects at QB that will be sophs this year.

They should be competitive this year and lose very little to graduation, 2011 could be the year they make a lot of noise.


April 7th, 2010
3:52 pm

Correction, one of the outstanding QB prospects, a rare 4* at UK, will be a redshirt freshman, which is even better. Woodson was their last 4* QB, you might remember him.


April 7th, 2010
3:58 pm

I believe UK football struggles for three reasons:
1) Kentucky is not a good state for recruiting. There are some nice players here and there, but it won’t allow them to compete in the SEC.

2) We won’t get the cream of the crop (ever): We’ll never succeed in Ohio because they will go to OSU or Penn State or Michigan. The Georgia kids we get are great, but the fact is that most of them would be 2nd or 3rd string at Georgia, Florida, Tenneessee or ‘Bama.
3) Which then brings us to the double edged sword that is the SEC – Kids who are believed to be good enough to be studs in the SEC aren’t coming to UK. We will get a few fringe players bc we are an SEC team, but most kids want to win and don’t want to take their lumps when they can star in a lesser conference.

Make no mistake, UK football is not UNC or Duke football. We pack the stadium. We care. We just don’t win. We drink bourbon.

[...] College Football”, Tony Barhnart, talks about whether or not new Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips can take the Cats to the “next level” in the SEC.  The picture painted by the only journalist to appear to be a wax figurine in every photo is a [...]


April 7th, 2010
4:45 pm

Good analysis BenCatsFAN, nothing more I can add except GEAUX TIGERS!


April 7th, 2010
5:23 pm

gator88, I and other fans have wondered the same thing about recruiting in OH. UK has alot of alums
in the Cinci area. I don’t see why Cinci isn’t a priority for UK. You can’t tell me playing in the Big E or playing for a SEC team wouldn’t be a bigger draw. As far a the ‘rifleman and his racist comments
keep spouting your drivel it’ll get you nowhere. Joker will keep his job on the basis of field performance on and off of it. I live south of Lexington areas waaay more than the so called racist Lexington and I haven’t been hearing any knee jerk responses to Joker other than Kick butt and take names


April 7th, 2010
5:30 pm

Ben, while I mostly agree with you about Kentucky HS recruiting, but Kentucky has beaten Georgia 2 out of the last 4 & while it is 0 for the last 4 against Tennessee (2 were OT games), Kentucky was only 1 play away from being 3-1 against both of those schools. Sorry, but 2nd & 3rd string talent would not be able to do that. Nor would 2nd or 3rd string talent be able to beat LSU, Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, FSU, etc.