HOOVER, Ala. - If Joker Phillips is concerned about his job status he sure isn't letting on. Kentucky's third-year coach is even cracking jokes when asked about the temperature of his coaching seat.
“I'm not sitting down right now, so there's nothing hot,” Phillips quipped when asked at Southeastern Conference Football Media Days about being on the hot seat.
Whether Phillips is feeling any pressure internally is unknown but there is little doubt the 2012 season is critically important for Kentucky. The Wildcats struggled in 2011, slipping to 5-7 and missing a bowl game for the first time in six years. Although the team was much more competitive the final two weeks of the season, even ending a 26-game losing streak to rival Tennessee, the losing season dropped Phillips' overall record to 11-14 in two seasons.
The commentary on Phillips' job status was ratcheted up when a faction of the media and fan base ran with a comment UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart made when asked if he had confidence in Phillips. Barnhart, in part of his answer, said 'confidence is a scary word', leading to widespread speculation about Phillips' future.
Barnhart later explained his remarks in an exclusive interview with The Cats' Pause.
“The message was I believe in Joker but it doesn't do any good for me to have, quote-unquote, 'confidence',” Barnhart said. “We have to go out and do something. I believe we will get that done. People say, 'Well, how many wins?' If I say I think we can win eight games this year and then we win seven does that mean we haven't fulfilled expectations? No, we will have made progress and gotten better. If I say it's six and we win five then everyone says, 'Told you.'
“Out of context, you can say he isn't very confident but I'm very confident that we can get this thing done. Does that mean I'm willing to sit there and say you have to win seven games, eight games, nine games? No, I'm not. I want to see progress on the football field.”
Phillips doesn't appear to be fazed by the constant chatter about what must happen in 2012 for him to see a fourth-year at his alma mater.
“I don't have time to listen to that stuff,” Phillips said. “All we have time to think about is doing all the productive things in our program that we need to get it back to the level that we want to. I don't have time to think about those things.
“It's like negative recruiting. The time (used) to talk about somebody else's program, I'm losing time I've got to sell the great state of Kentucky and what we have to offer. It takes away from the time for me to sell our basketball program. It takes away time for me to sell our 40 guys that we've had sign (in the NFL) in five years. It takes away from me to sell that we have unbelievable, unbelievable fan base that stick with us through thick and thin.”
What Kentucky does on the field this season will ultimately play a major role in both Phillips' future and that of the program, but for now the powers that be are focused on making 2012 a success.
“Everybody wants to see progress and you'll know it when you see it,” Barnhart told The Cats' Pause. “Off the field we've seen progress being made. I've been around the workouts. We look more like the kind of football team we need to be in this league. The spring was encouraging to me. I think we have to be careful, and people in today's society want to take one word and completely spin it, and that's fine. It is what it is. I love what Joker is trying to do and how he's fighting for our kids. He deserves our full support to give him the best chance to go out and make progress.”
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