When the curtain drops on Joker Phillips' coaching tenure at Kentucky on Nov. 24 he will walk away from being intimately involved in the one program in which he has always maintained a stake. After playing for and giving 19 seasons of his coaching career to the school he will cut official ties with the Cats.
The sun will set on Joker Phillips' tenure on Nov. 24
But Phillips insists he won't break the emotional bond.
“The thing I'd tell Big Blue Nation is I'm part of you,” Phillips said. “I will continue to buy my season tickets. I won't buy as many but I'll continue to buy my season tickets. We all have a hand in it if we want this thing to succeed, we all do. We all do. It's not moaning and groaning when we don't get the results, when the next guy doesn't get the results as fast as we want, it's staying behind the players and coaches. Stand behind them. I'll stand behind them. I'll be rooting like heck for them.”
Phillips arrived at Kentucky in 1981 at a time when a good number of folks in his life wondered aloud why he'd opt to play football there. He left as a critical member of the 1984 team that went 9-3, won the Hall of Fame Bowl and was the last team to defeat rival Tennessee until the squad he coached did so in 2011. He had a cup of tea in the National Football League before returning to Lexington as a graduate assistant, the first of two long stints on the Cats' coaching staff.
He's as much Kentucky football as anyone, which is all he ever hoped to be.
“(I) was hoping to have a good career, hoping to be an asset to this place, and I feel like after 20-something-plus years that I have been, regardless of what other people might think,” Phillips said. “Never thought I'd have this time of success, and with memorable wins. We had some memorable losses. Been to eight bowl games out of 15 that the place has had.
“I came here as an 18-year-old kid. This place turned me into a man the first time. This time, all it did was strengthen me as a man. It gave me strength. It made me understand how important character is. My character got challenged a few times. It showed me how important integrity is, and my integrity got challenged a few times. It showed me how important loyalty is. With that, I'm very grateful and appreciative.”
Where Kentucky goes from here is in the hands of athletics director Mitch Barnhart and whomever he opts to include in his search for a new coach. Phillips won't be a part of that in body but he maintains he will remain invested to the program in spirit. He also appealed to fans to remain steadfastly committed to the players and coaches that will come after him.
“If you want to get the thing done, and from what I've seen the fans want to get it done, then stand behind this team,” Phillips said. “Show up in droves. You know how hard it is to recruit when there is nobody in (Commonwealth Stadium)? I'm talking about like 2006. There was nobody in there then. It was a hard sell to sell the 2007 class to come here. 'Coach, nobody is coming.' I know but we're 8-5.
“That's not the way you build a program. Everybody is involved in building a program, especially building a program here. You have to stay behind this team. You have to come out in droves. Support this team. You're a part of getting kids here also. We all are. I'm a part of it. I'm trying to sell kids to come here today. This is a message that this can be a really good place but it's going to take everybody. Everybody.”
Wherever Phillips is in the future he said he'll keep a close eye on Kentucky. As for next season, he doesn't intend to jump into anything anytime soon.
“Next year? No. Nah. I'm going to take some time,” Phillips said. “I don't have a clue what I'm going to do. I don't have a clue about being a head coach or coaching period, I have no clue. The thing I think is best is to step back, step away, let all the emotions die down and then figure things out.”