Sports in Kentucky by Bob Watkins

Posted November 7, 2012 at 2:55 pm

The long good-bye.

Kentucky’s open date Saturday, gives lame duck coach Joker Phillips pause to deal with ‘what ifs and ‘if onlys,’ then rally his thoughts, rally his troops, and gather up for Senior Day.

A week on, he and they can warm in the rally call “Win One For Coach!” as the Wildcats get on a bus and head for the most important football trip to Knoxville since the day a senior flanker played for Jerry Claiborne and beat Big Orange in Big Orange Country. The flanker was Joker Phillips, the year was 1984, the score, 17-12.


√ First, when the new coach signs on, he’d better be humble, realize from the get-go, he rates no higher than the sixth on the celebrity food chain here and half don’t even coach basketball. John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Charlie Strong, Willie Taggart and whatever horse is favored to win the Kentucky Derby.

Observations …

√ Big Blue Nation should be slow to fall in love until two things are clear.

1. A defensive coordinator is announced. The new DC had better show up ready to say, “make no mistake, gentlemen, we ARE gonna stop the run!” and “you’re too damned heavy!”

2. The new recruiting coordinator should be skinny and handsome and talk authentic cool (John Calipari). He must not be a fat guy. One who thinks a Rotary Club invitation means he’s a VIP and writes his free lunch up as a recruiting expense.

√ Kentucky football is a GOOD job. No laughing, please.

Think: Geography, weather, facilities, starved (if fickle) fan base, the SEC, Keeneland, free basketball tickets. And, the pay isn’t bad living in central Kentucky.

√ And recruit-rich regions. While Georgia and Florida high schools have been good to Kentucky, southern and central Ohio along with Pennsylvania and, ready for this, New Jersey, are recruit hot beds untapped by UK.

√ And, the UK coach must do this again: Get a foothold in Jefferson County.

√ First, the good news – eliminating Bobby Petrino as an option, Barnhart avoids a Billy Clyde Gillispie Redux.

√ When the skin color lobby telephones to remind Barnhart about minority hiring, the AD ought to be “out of town.”

√ Joker is out after three. College administrators who sign coaches to five year contracts for rebuild jobs is a peculiar standard, don’t you think? Aggravated by ticket price hikes, the shelf life of fan support is three seasons. (re: Gene Chizik at Auburn under fire three years after a national championship).

√ Joker Phillips took over a ‘rebuilding job’ at Kentucky. When Randall Cobb left early for the NFL, UK became a rebuilding job.

√ Joker Phillips is due $2-plus million for two seasons he won’t be on the sideline. Fans can count on two things – the director of athletics will find ways to pay the buy-out and Big Blue Nation probably won’t like any of them.

√ John Calipari. The new football coach should embrace the basketball coach’s community involvement strategy and reject the rest.

√ Will Tee Martin’s name re-surface?

√ With Beano Cook no longer available, a visit with guru Lou Holtz. Just kidding. Maybe.

√ Barnhart knows and we know his next hire will define his legacy, make or break his chance of having a statue erected of himself outside Craft Center instead of a portrait in a hallway.

√ Finding Kentucky’s next football coach, Barnhart should bend the axiom “hurry, but don’t rush,” into “no hurry at all.” With a three win season at best, and staff gone, recruiting for 2013 will be leftovers. So, watch the coaching carousel fill up. There is no hurry at all.

√ The search. Considering what’s at stake, Barnhart should discard the usual course, throw money to a national search consulting firm to find and vet candidates. Instead, make his legacy hire a personal and public demonstration to fans of a man determined to find his man.

√ Consultation with UK All-Americans is a good idea – Howard Schnellenberger, Dermontti Dawson and Rodger Bird to start. Have lunch with high school coaches Dale Mueller (Highlands), Bob Beatty (Trinity) and Ty Scroggins (Louisville Central).

√ UK football’s demise this season has been less about Phillips’ caring and competence and more about his (overpaid?) staff’s inability to improve players fundamentally enough to compete in the SEC.

√ Because there is no whine in brutal-every-week SEC football, Rick Minter and the others have no excuses. They failed their coach, but more, failed folks who paid $50 a Saturday (not counting popcorn), and Phillips takes the fall.


In lieu of Vandy’s 40-0 beat-down in Lexington last week, if the Commodores give Tennessee a similar black-and-gold whuppin’ in Nashville November 17, then usual doormat Vandy could be the instrument in firing of two SEC coaches within three weeks. Tennessee’s Derek Dooley appears headed to the unemployed millionaires queue along with Phillips.


When word came that Joker Phillips was out at Kentucky, reaction from a Big Blue Nation internet message board said enough: “… this is what the Big Blue Nation wanted, me included. But, for some reason I thought I would be happier.”


Football players at Kentucky did not show up for the game at Missouri.

Alarming, Big Blue Nation didn’t show up for the players at the Vanderbilt game.

Concerning, University of Kentucky officials would condone an outright lie about attendance.

Bottom line: Kentucky fans have a chance next week to say goodbye to one of sports’ Good Guys, Joe ‘Joker’ Phillips.

And so it goes.