May 7, 2009

Phillips the right choice for Kentucky's future

LEXINGTON, Ky. Hiring coaches typically is an arduous process.

Searches can span coast to coast. Lists of candidates are assembled and pared down. Hours upon hours are spent on interviews. That's because the right hire can bring in millions of dollars for a university.

But Kentucky's search for its next coach only required a quick walk down the hallways at the Paul Orberson Office Complex. The candidate list was short. The interview was brief, though some might contend the process actually took three years.

Last January, Joker Phillips the Wildcats' charismatic, immensely popular and intensely loyal offensive coordinator was named the eventual successor to coach Rich Brooks, becoming part of a growing nationwide trend of "coaches in waiting."

When the waiting is over maybe as soon the 2010 season Phillips, 46, will go on a short list of black head coaches of FBS programs. Currently, there are seven.

"There's no question in my mind he's ready," Brooks said. "I'm very pleased we were able to move forward the plan to implement him. He's been interviewed basically every year he's been here for NFL jobs and at different [college programs]."

When he made the announcement, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Phillips' ties to the university he is an alumnus and his good work as an assistant made him a natural for the job.

St. Louis Rams wide receiver Keenan Burton, who caught 169 passes and scored 23 touchdowns at Kentucky, was thrilled Phillips was named to succeed Brooks.

"You couldn't ask for a better situation," Burton said. "I honestly feel Coach Phillips is ready. I feel he's deserving, and I feel he's loyal. A lot of times these days, loyalty is not part of the business. In football, it's all about winning. But you can't ask for a better recruiter or a better offensive coach."

Who is this guy?

The "coach in waiting" plan keeps highly regarded assistants from seeking better jobs elsewhere with the promise of becoming the next coach. Chip Kelly already has succeeded Mike Bellotti at Oregon. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Texas' Will Muschamp and Maryland's James Franklin will become coach when Bobby Bowden, Mack Brown and Ralph Friedgen, respectively, step aside.

Fisher, like Kelly, is a well-known offensive coordinator and was on a national championship staff at LSU in 2003. Muschamp is one of the country's premier defensive coordinators and also was on LSU's staff in '03. Both would likely be head coaches now if not for their "coach in waiting" agreements.

But who is this Joker and why has Kentucky entrusted its football future to him? When a basketball coach is hired in hoops-crazy Lexington, it becomes headline fodder across the country, as was the case when John Calipari was coaxed away from Memphis last month. Yet, outside of the SEC actually, maybe outside Kentucky Phillips is a virtual unknown.

And that doesn't bother him at all.

"I don't care. I'm here to do my job. My job is to make that guy look good and make sure they all know him," Phillips said while pointing toward Brooks' office. "I've got to do a great job for him. He went out on a limb for me."

That's a story for later. But suffice to say that Joe Phillips whose nickname "Joker" was meant to distinguish him from his father of the same name, not because of any personality traits has done some substantial climbing, too.

I'm here to do my job. My job is to make [Rich Brooks] look good and make sure they all know him. I've got to do a great job for him. He went out on a limb for me.
— Joker Phillips on working with Rich Brooks
He played wide receiver at Kentucky from 1981-84, when the SEC was so run-oriented that graduate assistants often were receivers coaches. Though Phillips only had 75 catches and scored nine touchdowns, he ranked fifth on the school's career receptions list when he left.

Two of his touchdowns came in a 21-13 upset of LSU in 1983. The Wildcats' other touchdown in that game was scored by Kerry Baird, who also was Phillips' teammate at Franklin (Ky.) Simpson High. The next week, bumper stickers reading "Franklin-Simpson 21, LSU 13" appeared on dozens of cars in Franklin.

After completing his playing career at Kentucky, Phillips played two seasons for the NFL's Washington Redskins. His coach was Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs. His first receivers coach was Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Taylor. He was also coached by Hall of Fame defensive back Emmitt Thomas. He played behind Art Monk, who also is in the Hall of Fame.

When his playing career ended, Phillips took all that knowledge back to Kentucky in 1988 as a graduate assistant. His career path led him to assistant coaching jobs at Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina before Brooks hired him as Kentucky's receivers coach in 2003.

"I always thought I'd be a coach," said Phillips, whose father was a barber and mother was a beautician. "Growing up, I was always a catcher, a point guard and a quarterback. If I was on the court, the field or the diamond, I always wanted to be the guy in charge."

Even though Phillips helped develop several NFL wide receivers and has been rated among the nation's premier recruiters by, his career path might have taken another turn had Brooks not crawled out on a limb and promoted Phillips to offensive coordinator late in 2004 following what must be the quickest job interview in history.

Brooks has led Kentucky to bowl games in each of the last three seasons, becoming the first coach to accomplish that feat since Bear Bryant in the '50s. But before the 2005 season, he was under intense criticism and his job was in serious jeopardy.

The Wildcats had managed just six victories in his first two seasons combined. They averaged just 15.7 points per game and ranked 115th (of 117 teams) in total offense in 2004. Brooks' job was hanging by an unraveling thread and he had to replace Ron Hudson who was forced out as offensive coordinator. Conventional wisdom called for Brooks to scour the country for a dynamic replacement.

Instead, he walked across the hall.

"He came into my office and said, 'What do you think about being the coordinator?' " Phillips recalled. "I said, 'I think I'm ready' and he walked out. I called my wife and said, 'I think I just interviewed for the coordinator position.'

"She said, 'How did it go?' I said, 'It was short.' "

Phillips not only was on the short list, he was the short list.

"I wanted to make sure he felt confident about it," Brooks said. "One of the problems that's happening in coaching today is too few people are willing to give the responsibility of being a coordinator to a first-time coach. They always want to go steal somebody else's coordinator because they don't have confidence in their own judgment. That's one of the reasons salaries have escalated so much."

Phillips' reputation escalated, too.

Although Kentucky managed just three wins in 2005, its scoring average improved to 21.7 points per game. The next season, the Wildcats averaged 26.7 points and posted eight wins in starting their bowl streak. In 2007, they averaged 36.5 points per game in another eight-win season.

The system works

Phillips deflects praise for the offensive transformation. His system was boosted by quarterback Andre' Woodson, running back Rafael Little, tight end Jacob Tamme and Burton, all of whom developed into All-SEC performers. Phillips also credits quarterback coach Randy Sanders for helping Woodson develop.

But it remains that the players flourished in his system, which calls for receivers to read coverages and adjust their routes accordingly. He also deserves credit for convincing UK players that they could compete at a high level against top competition.

"The biggest thing we had to change was attitudes and get players to play fast," he said. "The system is simple; it's not hard to learn. I want to be in a quick-striking offense and make the game like a track meet."

Burton said Phillips did make a difference.

"He molds you and helps you becomes who you want to be," Burton said. "Coach Phillips' offensive scheme kept a lot of teams off-balance. It was very difficult for teams to prepare for us, period. Coach Brooks could have brought in another guy to implement another offense, and who's to say if they would have been successful? They might have been. But we might have stayed in the same state we were in."

Phillips' offense has attracted better offensive players to Kentucky. In February, the Wildcats signed two touted quarterbacks Ryan Mossakowski, the nation's 14th-rated pro-style quarterback, and Morgan Newton, the nation's 14th-ranked dual-threat quarterback. Mossakowski is from Texas, Newton from Indiana.

At some point in their careers, Phillips almost assuredly will be their head coach. Brooks, who will turn 68 before this season starts, guarantees he will retire within the next four seasons. He has been troubled by the recent deaths of friends/former coaches Larry Smith, Bruce Snyder and Frank Gansz and wants to retire while still in good health.

"I know it won't be four more years," Brooks said. "When I came here, I wanted to be the longest-tenured coach here. That would take 10 years and I'd need four more. I don't see that happening. I've lost a lot of good friends and associates in the last year or two.

"I'd like to have more quality time with my grandkids and family. When it feels right, it will feel right."

When that time comes, Kentucky is confident it already has found the right guy to keep the program winning. Even without an arduous search.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at

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