After UK dropped its first game to a non-BCS conference opponent since 2004 Saturday in a 32-31, overtime loss to Western Kentucky, head coach Joker Phillips knows there are plenty of fans calling for his job.
“I told our staff yesterday the players will hear it,” he said. “We won’t hear it. We’re buried in the office. We sense it, but we don’t get a chance to hear it because we’re buried in there trying to prepare for the next opponent.”
The loss to Western Kentucky snapped a streak of 20 consecutive wins against non-BCS foes. The last loss to a non-BCS team came on Oct. 2, 2004, when the Rich Brooks-coached Wildcats were beaten 28-14 by Ohio. That UK team was coming off probation and won just two games.
Prior to Monday’s weekly new conference, Phillips had an unusual greeting for the parking attendant at Commonwealth Stadium. “This ought to be good,” he said, referencing the questions about job security he knew he would receiver.
“He told me, ‘That’s the exact same thing Rich (Brooks) said when we got beat by Ohio University,” Phillips said.
Joker Phillips watches from the sideline in overtime against WKU. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Asked why he thinks he deserves more time to turn the program around, Phillips noted one trait his team shares with the 2004 team.
“We’ve got 72 freshmen and sophomores in this program,” he said. “We just played a program that has 50 juniors and seniors in their program. I get that we’ve got to be better than that, but we’ve got a lot of good, young players playing ball for us.”
When Phillips was promoted to head coach to replace the retiring Brooks in 2010, he inherited a team that had won four consecutive bowl games.
His first team won six games in 2010, but posted UK’s first losing record since 2005 after suffering a loss in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Pittsburgh. His second team snapped the streak of five consecutive bowl games with a five-win season, but closed the year by snapping the 26-game losing streak to Tennessee.
Three games into his third season as UK’s head coach, Phillips’ career record sits at 12-16.
“We’re put together a young team. We did it the right way,” Phillips said. “There will not be any investigations and those type of things around here. We’ve done it the right way, and we’ll continue to do it the right way.”
Why UK is so young is up for debate.
There are 17 seniors and 15 juniors on the roster. Those classes have been hit hard by players leaving school due to transfers and other reasons.
Phillips rejected the idea that the reliance on so many underclassmen was due to poor recruiting in the junior and senior classes.
“We’ve got some really good kids as upperclassmen,” he said. “Larry Warford, do you think that was bad recruiting? Matt Smith has started three years here. That’s not bad recruiting. We just don’t have a lot of numbers in the senior and junior classes.”
While many fans may have already started speculating about the next Wildcat football coach, UK players and coaches have not given up on 2012 just yet.
“Once we start winning, they’re going to be back on the bandwagon,” said senior defensive end Collins Ukwu. “Obviously they’re not on it (now) just from the losses we’ve had. It’s something we don’t worry about.”
“We just have to worry about winning games and finding a solution to the problem,” said junior linebacker Avery Williamson. “What we’ve really got to do is win games.”
The quest to salvage the 2012 season starts Sunday at Florida, a team that has won 25 consecutive games against UK.
Taking such a young team to the “swamp” in Gainesville could present additional challenges for UK.
“We’ve got to prepare them for all the things that are involved when you’re down a little bit,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to get them prepared for this hostile environment we’re about to go in.”
Phillips is no stranger to struggles at UK. He was a player on the 1982 team that was winless in 11 games. He was an assistant on Bill Curry’s staff from 1990-1996 when UK compiled a 26-45 record. He was also an assistant during the on the first three Rich Brooks’ teams that combined for a 9-25 record.
Phillips said those experiences are helping him guide his current team through the variety of issues that accompany a struggling program.
He knows his players will be more exposed to grumblings from the fan base in the coming weeks. He acknowledged Monday it will take extra effort to keep his team focused.
“This is a time when they need us most as coaches,” he said. “We’ll be there for them.”