Joker Phillips doesn't like to make his point with players by going public. Outside of former Kentucky wide receiver and resident kook Dicky Lyons, Phillips has gone out of his way to pay mind to the tried and true football mantra of keeping things in house.
Which is what made his criticism of La'Rod King in The Cats' Pause 2012 Kentucky Football Yearbook all the more stunning. The Kentucky head coach was clearly fed up and had reached his breaking point with the talented senior receiver. If the 2012 season was going to be any sort of make or break campaign, Phillips was going to make sure one of the only experienced playmakers on the roster was all-in … or out.
“La'Rod King didn't have a great spring,” Phillips said. “He had too many things going on – a baby being born, which we knew about, and pledging a fraternity, which we didn't know about. I don't see a leader trying to do all of those things. I see a leader trying to focus on his football. La'Rod had way too many things going on this spring to give him leadership of the wide receiver position. And that's one thing that group has been missing: leadership. We've always had it.
“The offense takes on the personality of the receiving group, in my opinion. We've had Derek Abney as a captain. Keenan Burton was a captain. Tommy Cook. Randall Cobb. That's four out of nine years someone from the receiver position was a captain. I don't know if La'Rod King can be a captain here yet. I think that's what we're missing. I think it was missing last season.”
By most measures, the comments would be considered serious. By Phillips' buttoned-up standard, the criticism was nothing short of scathing. Here was a coach on the hot seat ripping arguably his most accomplished player – a senior no less – before a season that could determine his future. Nevermind the 86 catches, 1,218 yards and 13 career touchdowns King had produced, this was about getting the best out of player who must be good for the Cats to have any hope of returning to a bowl game.
Ten days into training camp it appears King received the message loud and clear.
“You can take criticism and turn it into a positive and from there is flows easy because you're like, 'Coach is right,'” King said. “It didn't bother me, it motivated me. I did have a lot going on (in the spring). That's his job as a coach, if I'm slacking off he's supposed to get on me. It's not personal, it's coaching. I'm a player and I need to perform. That's my job.”
With a summer of reflection King confessed he needed a reminder of how to keep his priorities in line. Although being a father to his infant son ranks at the top of the totem pole, King also realized he had to be a football father to a group of receiver heavy on talent but light on collegiate wherewithal.
“It was definitely a life lesson learned,” King said. “It was too much on my plate at one time and I learned from my mistake. It comes down to time management and there are certain times when you should do things and certain times when you shouldn't. At that point, it's one of those things where you have to make your priorities straight. You have to be mature and know what's right at that particular moment. That translates to the field too.”
Phillips has seen a clear difference in camp, routinely praising King's work ethic and attention to detail. It was King who Phillips twice singled out for having one of the best performances of UK's first live scrimmage of camp, which further convinced the coach the spring malaise King endured was behind him.
“We were trying to blame it on something because we didn't know (what was causing it),” Phillips said. “I think a lot of that weight is off his shoulders now and he's playing a lot faster. He did a really good job of trying to lead this summer because he's got a young group behind him. He's the most experienced guy in that group by far. It's not even close. A lot was put on him this summer to lead those guys and he has the stripes to lead them.”
The affable King admitted the Cats' 2011 struggles also played on his mind. One of the more outgoing players on the team, King acknowledged it was difficult to maintain the joy of simply playing football as the losses mounted up.
“It got to a point where it was frustrating but it's a learning experience and part of the game,” King said. “We have to make football fun again. Nobody likes to lose, but the reality is someone does. You have to make football fun. You don't want to play for the wrong reasons. You can't lose the fun out of football, even though it's a job. You want to work where you enjoy it. It's like your job, you don't want to come to work pissed.”
While Phillips' harsh critique certainly struck a chord with King, it was the awe and wonder of becoming a father that has his eyes on the prize entering 2012.
“It motivates you, man,” King said. “It's a different perspective because I'm not out here doing this just for me I'm doing it for my family. I'm doing something I love and something that could benefit me as well as my family.
“Changing diapers. Late nights. It's all part of fatherhood and I love it.”