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Can Joker Phillips do what is needed to fix UK football?



Did anybody notice that a certain Big East football team had five players drafted in last week’s NFL draft? No, not the one Big Blue Nation loves to hate on a daily basis, but the one that embarrassed UK in last January’s BBVA Compass Bowl.

Yes, Pittsburgh, that team that everyone said UK laid an egg against. Well, it turns out that maybe — and it hurts to say this, but as the old saying goes “sometimes the truth hurts, because it’s simply the truth” — the Pitt Panthers were simply better than UK. Pittsburgh had five players drafted into the NFL professional ranks last week with one each in the first and second rounds and three more in the fifth and sixth rounds.

This is another confirmation that UK may not have cabbaged on those first two 8-5 bowl winning seasons in the recruiting process like everyone thought. It’s also a testament that since only Randall Cobb was drafted from UK that the overall recruit that has been brought into the Nutter Training Center since those first two bowl winning seasons isn’t at the talent level we all thought, either.

This is possibly why UK has put up two 6 – 6 regular season campaigns in the last three years and of more importance we may all now know the real reason that Rich Brooks chalked it in. Brooks saw that he had done about all he could do and envisioned a slide backwards coming. How does Joker circle wagons?

It is no secret that in this new day and age the UK football fan will not tolerate six-win seasons very long. With the money spent by today’s college football fan, more is expected by Coach Joker Phillips and his troops or the seats will start being vacated on those beautiful fall afternoons in the bluegrass. And we all know what happens to coaches when seats become empty on gameday.

Simply put, I don’t think today’s new era UK football fan will have the patience nor loyalty to spend today’s money like the old fans of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

This September, Phillips will enter his second season as the man in charge of UK football, and in most situations that is not a year that is critical for a coach taking over a program. But Phillips has been a keen adviser for Brooks since he stepped on campus and has put his own stamp on the program much more than most assistant coaches with other college football programs.

The “Joker Phillips Era” will be scrutinized much quicker and closer than most second-year head coaches. To Phillips credit he was the lead recruiter for the first five or six years of the Brooks era and actually turned the program in the right direction when he became the offensive coordinator.

However, I have heard several longtime UK football donors who have privately stated in the past year that Phillips may have been more productive and important to UK football in his role as offensive coordinator and lead recruiter than as the head coach. This doesn’t mean that Joker can’t be or won’t be a successful head football coach on the college level. It simply means that at UK his impact and importance to this particular program may have been what he was doing when Brooks departed.

To be painfully honest, I can see where those thoughts may actually have some merit. Today’s big time Division 1 head football coaches have so many daily responsibilities to perform in and out of season that have no significant importance come game day. Attending speaking engagements at various fund raising functions as well as civic responsibilities and fulfilling those many required media conferences at various times during the season no matter how appealing you are to those in attendance has no significance to his team’s play on gameday.

Phillips made several ground breaking and program-changing inroads for UK football in several southern states to get the program to the level it enjoys today. I sometimes wonder if he can continue the upward trend by spending all his time on the banquet tour with the high rollers and sugar daddies of UK football instead of on the recruiting trail of southern high school football.

Getting the Jimmy’s and Joe’s on campus are much more important for UK than drawing up the X’s and O’s on gameday.

Every college football program has to sell a recruit on something, and at UK you have to build a friendship and trust with a recruit by a coach who can relate to the modern-day athlete and bond with them over a period of time. You can’t do that unless you spend a lot of time on the road, especially with those seven or eight prime recruits that you target every year.

In the recruiting world the head coach has to have the ability to go in the home to close the deal, but it’s that bonding relationship that the lead recruiter builds with that recruit on a weekly basis over a period of time that gets the head coach in the home. Joker was a mastermind in the early to middle Rich Brooks years in getting UK’s name on the map.

It appears Phillips is trying to groom Tea Martin to take that role over I just hope Big Blue Nation will provide enough time for “Joker” to put the finishing touches on his early work.

Cal lining up the troops

It now appears that Coach John Calipari’s roster for the upcoming 2011-12 season is set barring any mid or late summer surprises (see Trevor Lacey sweepstakes).

Brandon Knight is off to the big bucks of the NBA although he may have to fend for himself for a few months until the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA Players Association and the NBA owners has been settled. But Knight will be handsomely rewarded once those bulging vaults are reopened and the season starts.

Somewhat of a mild surprise that Terrence Jones is staying at UK for another year. Jones could be rewarded handsomely himself a year from now if he uses next season as a building block. Also, next year’s lottery picks will be under the new collective bargaining agreement, which I’m sure will be much more lucrative.

As for DeAndre Liggins and his surprise announcement late Sunday night that he will take a plunge into the NBA draft, I wonder sometimes who is in the dark the most, the college player or the NBA player personnel folks?

Ira Combs lives at Jeff in Perry County. He is director of the Tri- State Sports Media Service Inc.



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