Mitch Barnhart should get in front of the UK football fan base on Monday and announce that Joker Phillips will not be the coach at Kentucky next season. Honestly, that is a very difficult sentence for me to write, but at this point its truth can no longer be denied. As a person, I am a huge fan of Joker Phillips. He is one of the most humble, generous and down-to-earth individuals that I have met during my time covering UK sports. He has been a great representative for the Big Blue Nation off the field, generously donating his time and stature to a number of causes throughout the Commonwealth. And on a personal level, he has always been a friend to both me and KSR in a myriad of ways. However on the field, it continues to become clearer that the football program is no longer well served by having him as its leader. As his time as a player and coach here for decades has shown us, no person bleeds blue to the core more than Joker. However Joker’s love for Kentucky and UK fan’s respect and admiration for him can’t change the fact that what is best for this University and its football program is for a change to be announced immediately.
The events in Columbia on Saturday didn’t tread any new ground, but they highlighted that things are at a historic low point for Kentucky football. Yes, some of this 1-8 season can be chalked up to bad luck and injuries, but they are only part of a much larger story of the slow decline of the UK program. While Kentucky has never been a SEC power, the Cats have descended from a middle-of-the-road SEC program with punching power to the laughing stock of the league. Kentucky went on the road to Columbia to play against another winless SEC team and suffered the joint indignity of not only being a 15 point pre-game underdog, but also then being unable to even cover that disrespectful spread. Every frustrating issue that has arisen during the past three years manifested itself on Sunday. Conservative playcalling, infuriating mental mistakes, illogical substitution patterns and consistent game mismanagement turned a potential win into an embarrassing loss. Not even Joker’s most adamant supporter could watch the game on Saturday and not think that Kentucky like a poorly coached team with significant issues on both sides of the ball. While young players continue to showcase promising talent, the team as a whole takes gigantic steps back virtually every week, turning the entire fan base despondent. It is a poor sign when for two of the past three weeks, the most positive comment from fans has been to root for the game to end quickly. But the reality is that nearly all UK fans have done something that has almost never happened in the program’s history. They have given up and ensured that nothing but negativity looms.
That is why it is so important for Mitch Barnhart to immediately announce that change is coming. The UK football fan base and program needs the jolt of optimism that comes with the possibility of a coaching change. But also, Joker Phillips deserves the chance to leave Kentucky in a positive manner. Because of his deep Kentucky roots, the vast majority of the Big Blue Nation is an extremely awkward and unusual position. While they believe Joker Phillips should be replaced, they also genuinely like him and truly wish he could have had success. I think that partially explains why despite growing resentment and a continued dramatic drop in attendance, the scenes at Commonwealth have yet to get all that negative. There aren’t the boo birds of the Curry era or the personal animosity that was often shown during the final moments of Billy Gillispie. Instead, fans have generally held their fire and hoped for the best, while unfortunately expecting the worst.
However such muted displays of feelings will not continue forever. The overwhelming sentiment up to this point towards Joker among UK fans has been one of sadness, as most are genuinely depressed that is has not worked out. But at some point, that sadness will turn into loud expressions of frustration, especially so long as many believe the possibility exists that the staff could be allowed to return for another season. I have said for weeks that absent a miraculous change, Joker Phillips would almost certainly be gone at the end of the year. But that miracle has now left the building and no circumstance exists in my view, in which he can be retained. With that the case, the only reasonable solution is to announce that inevitable decision immediately. With Vanderbilt looming this week, the possibility of a legitimately negative scene in Commonwealth Stadium exists. If the Commodores (who are better than last year) beat Kentucky (who is worse than last year) by anything resembling the 38-8 final from last season, it is almost certain that fans will vocalize their feelings in a public way. Another 3rd and long bubble screen play call that is stopped for no game could unleash the hidden anger in the crowd and set forth a moment that would make none of us proud. It hasn’t happened yet, but all signs point to its potential on a cold November Saturday to come.
However such negativity can be avoided and turned into a final positive act. Because no real animosity within the fan base exists towards Joker, if Barnhart acts now, the chance for a proud ending remains possible. With no worry left that their frustration may not be heard, fans can root aggressively and throw their unbridled support towards a young team that is playing hard and learning for the future. Fans can then show their appreciation for a man that has left his blood, sweat and tears on the field as a player and a coach and for whom they have great affinity, without worrying that it could be depicted as an acceptance of the season as a whole. The final three games of what has seemed to be a never-ending death march can now become something else, a celebration of a person they love and respect and the promise of hope for a football future. I don’t expect the crowd to join hands and bust into “Kumbaya”, but they can give a coach who deserves it, a classy exit that we can all remember fondly.
After the events of this season, it can’t be denied that a change atop the UK football program at the end of this season is required. The current path is clearly not working and a point of no return has been reached. Joker Phillips has to be replaced. But because of his time here and the fans’ genuine affinity for him, Kentucky should make the ending as painless as possible. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the most lasting moment of the Joker Phillips era in Commonwealth Stadium is the sheer joy on his face from last season when Kentucky ended the Streak and finally took down Tennessee. No one wants the strongest memory to instead be of a disgruntled fan base worried about the future, expressing their displeasure in a loud, unfortunate way. Like many fans, I want Joker Phillips to be a part of the Kentucky family for years to come, not only because of his many successes here both as a player and assistant coach, but because of what a good person that he is as well. That can happen if Mitch Barnhart does what needs to be done. Mitch should announce on Monday that at the end of the year, Joker Phillips will no longer be the UK coach. It is what is best not only for UK football, but for its fans and Joker Phillips as well.