Believe it or not, the Kentucky football team has to be pretty care free headed into this season. In fact, outside of potentially Danny Trevathan, pretty much no one involved with the program has anything to lose this year. Everything we have heard about Morgan Newton suggests he will be as serviceable as Hartline was, and anything on top of that is gravy. The defense certainly can’t be worse than last years, and even if it’s not much better, Rick Minter will get at least a one year grace period. Randy Sanders has been so good for so long, even if the offense sputters out of the gate the blame will shift to who is in the NFL (Cobb, Locke,) and not who is on the sidelines. So that brings us to the only man that might be feeling some pressure this season – Joker Phillips.
It’s no secret now that Rich Brooks underwent some early tumultuous seasons at Kentucky, before putting the program on the path to where it is now. If anything, that should have taught us to be patient with new head coaches. But no matter how you look at it, Joker was under fire from some portions of the fan base towards the end of last year – and for good reason. I won’t try and spin it, Joker had some stumbles in his first campaign as a head coach. The type of miscues I would be surprised to see happen in his second year, but mistakes all the same. A number of wins were left on the field – some due to evident lack of preparation early in the game, some due to players fumbling the ball away, but either way there were a few more losses than there could have been. All that aside, it was a marginally successful first run as a head coach – only a four losses were by more than 7 points, UK beat a key rival, made it to a bowl, and ended one of the streaks (Spurrier/USC.)
Still, the season ended with a quarterback controversy and a poor showing in the bowl game. So what does this mean for Joker? Is 2011 a make or break season for the second year head coach? Well pardon my fence straddling, but it is and it isn’t.
Primarily, Phillips faces a challenge most other head coaches do not, and that is having to coach at the same school as John Calipari. Like it or not, Kentucky is a basketball school. Basketball is a sport where one great recruiting class (sometimes even one great player – see Sullinger, Carmelo,) can vault you to the top of the polls and instantly create a turnaround in your program. Simply look at Kentucky’s three years prior to Calipari compared to his two years here to see how quick a turnaround can happen. This flat out isn’t the case in football.
As we saw with Rich Brooks, it takes time to cultivate a team to your playing style, to your schemes and to your coaching. As a fan it can be easy to recognize that, but when you have grown up in a culture of basketball fandom, it can be tough to accept that finding success in football is a journey. It isn’t hard, then, to imagine a scenario where Joker loses a vocal portion of the fans with a mediocre season this year. While it’s highly unlikely a lackluster season would spell the end for Joker (let me stress highly unlikely,) if enough of the fan base turns on the Joker era it will be a rocky road ahead.
Personally, I am fully confident in the Joker era – even if it takes a year or two to take flight… but I would feel a lot better about that statement if you could go ahead and win the Tennessee game this year.