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In his first season as head coach at Kentucky, Joker Phillips led his Wildcats to a rousing (for them, not us) upset victory over a South Carolina team that had appeared to have turned the corner the week prior with its upset of top-ranked Alabama. That has turned out to be the highlight of Phillips's dismal tenure at UK. After that game, he went 2-4 to round out the 2010 season, finishing 6-7. Last year, his squad missed out on a bowl for the first time in several years, although it did have a notable win over Tennessee that halted a long losing streak in that series. This year, things appear to be even worse. The 'Cats sit at 1-3 on the year so far. Their lone win came against Kent St., and they have a loss to Sun Belt non-power Western Kentucky to answer for. The Hilltoppers, by the way, had never beaten an AQ team. Things aren't looking too hot.
What's happened under Phillips? A few years back, UK looked like a program on the rise, or at least a program that had carved out a space of semi-respectability. True, this was never a program that was consistently beating good teams under former coach Rich Brooks, but it consistently won cupcake out-of-conference games and beat teams like Vanderbilt and Mississippi St. Those days are long gone now, and UK looks to be staring down a three- or four-win season. Phillips is probably gone at the end of the year unless he pulls a huge rabbit out of his hat. Again, what happened?
I don't really know for sure, because I'm simply not connected enough to UK football to have a good sense of these matters. But my impression is that the biggest problem is that Phillips didn't put good people around him and hasn't done a good job developing talent. Kentucky, unless it begins pumping some of its basketball money into facility upgrades for the football program, is never going to recruit at a level comparable to the better teams in the SEC. What Kentucky was able to do for several years under Brooks was to find diamond-in-the-rough guys and then coach them into decent SEC football players. Kentucky had several moderately talented players come out of the program during Brooks's tenure, and three of the best--Derrick Locke, Mike Hartline, and Randall Cobb--were still in the program in Phillips's first year. There were still some good defensive players at UK last year. These were mostly guys that regional elite programs like Ohio St. and Tennessee passed, but that Brooks identified as being worth a short and coached up with his talented staff. Now, though, there seems to be a serious dearth of guys who are capable of making a difference in Lexington. The problem presumably goes back to Phillips's inability to surround him with talent-savvy assistants and to coach up the players on his roster. On the current team, Maxwell Smith has turned out to be a decent player, but there's serious deficiency elsewhere, especially along the defensive front.
One thing is for sure: While I like Phillips and can see why Kentucky went with him, his story is a cautionary tale against teams that set up a coach-in-waiting situation. It's not just the coach-in-waiting idea that I'm not keen on, but it's the idea of handing the keys to a guy with no head-coaching experience that particularly baffles me. Even though Kentucky is not exactly in a position to hire a major up-and-coming coaching prospect, it could have held a national search and gotten someone with more experience in recruiting and in composing a staff. That's a big part of what's hurt Kentucky in recent years, and they have themselves to thank for it. Not going all in for the best coach you can get in the SEC is program suicide.