It simply didn’t work. Whether it was bad timing, rotten luck or a coach ill-suited to the rigors of the eternal uphill battle of coaching a perennial David in a conference full of Goliaths, the Joker Phillips tenure ended in disappointment. (A fate shared with every coach not named Rich Brooks since Bear Bryant left for greener pastures in the 1950s.) Joker needed to win in 2012 to stave off the wolves. Instead, the season devolved into a seemingly-endless stream of non-competitive losses before an increasingly empty Commonwealth Stadium. Worse than being angry, the fan base grew apathetic, and Mitch Barnhart gave in to the inevitability of the situation when he announced the termination of Joker’s contract on November 4th.
So now the Joker Phillips era has ended, and we, as the Kentucky fan base, have a rare opportunity to show our appreciation for a man who has dedicated nearly half of his life to Kentucky football. An opportunity to resuscitate a dormant Commonwealth Stadium into a vibrant and positive place for once in this lost season. That opportunity is Saturday night.
Joker Phillips undeniably contributed to the University of Kentucky. As a player, he left his blood and sweat on the very field he’ll walk on for the last time this Saturday night. He helped lead the Cats to two bowl games as a player, including a Hall of Fame Bowl win to culminate a 9-3 season in 1984. After a stint in the NFL, he enjoyed success as an assistant with his Alma Mater, serving in multiple capacities for 16 years, to include four as offensive coordinator. His 2007 offense was perhaps the most dynamic in school history, leading the mighty SEC in passing while averaging an impressive 37 points per game. Once given the battlefield promotion to head coach, Joker became the first head man in school history to achieve a bowl game in his first season. He also ended the horrors of both the Spurrier and Tennessee losing streaks. Unfortunately, the on the field achievements proved to be unsustainable. What never ceased, however, was Joker’s love and dedication to the program.
Joker is the very embodiment of Kentucky football. Players don’t dream of playing football at Kentucky. Joker Phillips did. Coaches don’t dream of coaching football at Kentucky. Joker Phillips did. The tears of pride he shed at his introductory press conference were a testament to that. Kentucky may well hire a better football coach in the coming weeks, but they won’t hire one more devoted, more true blue than Joker Phillips, a coach who views the Kentucky job not as a stepping stone, but as a destination.
Of course, love of your school is not reflected on scoreboards or in the athletic department’s budget, and it does not save jobs in major college football. Joker Phillips would be the first to acknowledge that he is not owed anything by the University, who rewarded him handsomely for his work, and fairly let him go for not meeting the expectations of the fan base or the administration. But that does not mean that his service should not be appreciated by Kentucky fans. Over the years, one of the only prideful things that Kentucky fans could cling to was the mantra that we had the best, most loyal football fans in the country. Where else would fans happily endure the perpetual torment that is Kentucky football, and still come back time and again? But with the recent gate count, that position is getting tougher and tougher to defend. Saturday night is an opportunity to reclaim that title. By simply showing up and supporting the Cats, Kentucky fans can show their gratitude and respect for Joker Phillip’s football life. The time to fracture the fan base between pro and anti Joker groups is over. Joker’s coaching fate is sealed. The only remaining side is Kentucky football. Joker loyally and honorably served that, and we should show our collective appreciation Saturday night.