Last week, I posted on the topic of Joker Phillips’ job uncertainty after this season and said that Joker should be judged in 2012 by improvement, and not necessarily an exact number of wins. Of course, Joker needs to win in 2012, but I don’t think you can just draw a line between two numbers and say that he either stays or goes based on winning 5 games or 6, or wherever you want to draw the line. It’s a much more complicated decision than that, and I am sure Mitch’s discussions with Joker this off-season have been more detailed than “win this number of games” (although that would help him the most). The team could equal last year’s win total but actually compete at a much higher level than they did a year ago. If Joker has another 5- win season or even a 6-7 bowl season, there’s a lot of factors involved that Mitch will have to consider after the season. It’s simply not as easy as saying he needs to win “x” amount of games, but here are four crucial factors that will play a part in Joker’s fate if he doesn’t win 7+ games this year:
1. Competitiveness: Last year, UK was not just beat in the SEC, they weren’t even competitive in the majority of games. For the first time since prior to 2006, they didn’t even stand a chance in most SEC contests. They were absolutely embarrassed in Columbia last year, losing 54-3, and Joker can’t afford to have even one disaster like that in 2012, or Mitch Barnhart will have an easy decision to make in November. Just the year before, however, UK was competitive in just about every game and the team was fun to watch. The staff needs to be creative in 2012 and find ways to stay in games through gadget plays, a wildcat offense as they had with Randall Cobb (try it with Bookie), and whatever means possible to compete in the SEC and to keep things exciting for fans.
2. Youth: In 2005, Rich Brooks completed a 3-8 season and many UK fans were shouting for him to be replaced, but Mitch stuck with him because of the young talent on the roster. Andre Woodson, Jacob Tamme, Keenan Burton, Rafael Little, and Wesley Woodyard were all a part of that 3-8 team and Mitch saw the potential in them and stuck with Coach Brooks to see through their careers at UK. Brooks took over the program in much worse circumstances than Joker, and a 3-8 season would in no way be tolerated in 2012, but a 5 or 6 win result would make a decision complicated if all of the team’s strengths were younger players. If new guys step up on defense and prove to be competent after the departures of Danny Trevethan and Winston Guy, and Max Smith/Patrick Towles, and Josh Clemons have productive seasons offensively, then Mitch could be inclined to give Joker some more time after a 5 or 6 win season. On the other hand, if they win 5 or 6 games and are led by mostly upperclassmen, it’ll most certainly be time for a change.
3. Quality Wins: Despite each of his two years ultimately ending in disappointment, Joker has managed to have one key win in each of his two seasons: South Carolina in 2010 and Tennessee in 2011. Without those 2 wins, it’s doubtful that Joker would even still have his job today. It’s crucial that he adds another quality win or two in 2012 to keep fan interest, fill the seats, and produce the money that UK depends on from its highest revenue-producing sport. Beating Tennessee again would be too little, too late at the end of the season, unless it’s a win that puts UK in a bowl game or even improves their bowl selection. There are two other games that would be huge in keeping fans interested and keeping UK in contention for a bowl: Louisville and (I know this sounds far fetched) Florida. As far fetched as it seems, Florida is only 15-11 in the last 2 seasons (7-6 a year ago), and is beatable by anyone on a given day in the SEC.
4. Fan Support: As I said before, football is UK’s #1 revenue source. If seats are not filled and there is no excitement among the fan base, even a mediocre bowl season (which we’ve accepted as success in the past) could force a change. UK relies on football, as well as basketball, to support every other team on campus. The 2011-2012 school year was perhaps the best all-around year UK athletics has ever had, but it needs football to do well to continue to be successful across the board. With season tickets already rumored to be down this season, it will take a win over Louisville, strong showings in all of the other non-conference games, and at least a tough early-season fight in Gainesville to kick off SEC play for fans to buy up tickets for the remainder of the season.
So, to be clear on what I mean by “improvement” for Joker to keep his job, I mean that UK will have to be much more competitive every single week, receive significant production from younger players, beat Louisville or capture at least one highly unexpected quality SEC win, and keep fans engaged and showing up throughout the season to bring in the necessary revenue from the football program to support all 21 varsity sports at UK.
Essentially, all of these factors come down to winning, and probably all of these things wouldn’t happen without going to a bowl game. If many people already don’t want to support the football program, certainly not many at all will with another losing season, and probably rightfully so. But before completely writing off Joker Phillips, let’s see what Max Smith or Patrick Towles can do in a full year, let’s see what Josh Clemons can do when healthy, and let’s see what Rick Minter can do in his second season with the defense.