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UK coaching staff inspired by visit to National Guard

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Photo gallery from UK | Photo gallery from the Kentucky National Guard

Operation Win has been in full effect since Joker Phillips took over as head coach.

The hiring of new coaches, a more keen sense of discipline, and an overall attitude to win even more on the field and in the classroom has taken a simple army-themed concept and transformed it into a belief and conviction that has the Kentucky football team pointed toward big things in 2010.

But despite the raving success Phillips and his team have received for their steadfast dedication to Operation Win, the most important mission may have came Tuesday on a trip to Greenville, Ky.

Phillips and his entire coaching staff journeyed to the Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center outside of Greenville to meet with troops from the 149th Maneuver Enhanced Brigade, learn about the military effort and form a relationship that will transcend Operation Win far beyond the borders of the Lexington area.

On Tuesday, with the help of a coaching staff and the support of 2,265 brave men and women from the 149th MEB who are helping keep our country safe, Operation Win meant much more than just football.

"It was an unbelievable experience watching those guys go through their training and seeing the expressions on their faces when they saw the UK football staff show up," Phillips said.

OperationWin4.JPGThe idea of the two teams meeting formed a little more than a month ago from Freddie Maggard, the national community outreach director for the Kentucky National Guard. As a former UK quarterback, Maggard was well informed of Operation Win and Phillips' fascination with the military.

When Maggard started thinking about his former team and his current team preparing for the upcoming missions - one for a football season and the other for deployment to Iraq in less than a year - he thought it would be brilliant to bring the two teams together.

"We just thought about with Operation Win going on at UK and how beneficial that would be for our soldiers to have Coach Phillips and his staff come visit them and provide a connection between Operations Win and the 149th and the soldiers and officers that are training down there," Maggard said. "This event meshed up two teams that require discipline, teamwork, hard work and dedication."

The end result was an exhilarating learning experience for both the Kentucky football coaches and the troops training in Greenville.

From army fatigues, helmets, dog tags and a helicopter ride, the day for the UK coaches was tailored as if they were entering the army. At 0600 hours, or 6 a.m. ET to civilians, Phillips, his staff and this fortunate writer were picked by two vans and transported from the EJ Nutter Training Facility to the Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky.

There awaited a once-in-a-lifetime experience - two Blackhawk helicopters waiting to transport the staff nearly 200 miles away.

The UK football staff split into two chalks (a specific aircraft load), which were split by chain of command based on line of succession. That meant that Phillips, the highest in command, was in one helicopter and separated from the next in command. The line of succession of the football staff was split evenly so that the highest ranking staff members were all not on the same Blackhawk in the unfortunate circumstance that one was to go down.

With the windows and doors down on the helicopter - Phillips, securely harnessed inside the Blackhawk, literally sat just a half-foot away from the open sky - the staff took off at approximately 7:10 a.m. ET and headed for Greenville.

With winds whipping inside the Blackhawk as the helicopter reached speeds of up to 130 miles per hour at anywhere from 500 feet to 2,000 feet above sea level, Phillips vowed with Col. Tom Bearrir, the pilot on chalk one, that he never knew the helicopter would be open.

"I told my wife I wouldn't do anything stupid," Phillips said.

OperationWin22.JPGThe Blackhawks reached as high as 7,000 feet in the sky on the ride back, a nerve-racking experience for Phillips, who, as he gripped on to a handrail in the Blackhawk, readily admitted that he was afraid of heights.

"That was a white-knuckler for me," Phillips said. "I was definitely nervous coming back. I felt a little queasy at times, but those guys are highly trained and do a really good job at what they do best, which is operating that big machinery."

Once the staff arrived at the base at approximately 8:30 a.m. ET, they were greeted with the utmost honor, receiving respect given only to colonel and generals. The staff boarded a line of armored humvees and headed for a quick briefing with Commander Col. Scott A. Campbell.

Campbell told the staff that he didn't want to talk long and wanted to get the staff right out to the troops, but before doing so, he wanted to set the tone. The colonel unbuttoned his army fatigue, ripped it open and revealed a UK T-shirt.

"Those guys are not only going over to protect our country, but they're genuine UK fans," Phillips said. "I was surprised. Not only did (the colonel) have the UK shirt on, his son had pictures, was in our junior camp and they knew all of our staff. I was really surprised of all that stuff and thought that was unbelievable."

Campbell and Deputy Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Joseph M. Richie then accompanied the coaches as they participated in a Virtual Convoy Operation Training simulation, observed Humvee Egress Assistant Training and walked through the Individual Maneuver Tactical Grenade course side by side with soliders from the 149th.

The coaching staff got to see firsthand troops throw grenades, virtually drive through Baghdad, Iraq, and see how troops escaped overturned humvees. Some of the coaches even wore some of the cumbersome field gear and Kevlar, the same that the soldiers wear.

The most important part of the day, though, was meeting with the troops. The coaches took time to sign autographs and interact with the soldiers, discussed working hard in the heat, and the challenges of training.

"It's an incredible boost of morale to know that Coach Phillips and his staff would take the time to come down there and visit," Maggard said. "There's a mutual appreciation between the service and athletics regardless of which team you follow. A lot of soldiers training today are UK fans and to have Coach Phillips and his staff go down there today means so much to them. For the soldiers, it's their game day."

The visit broke up the daily grind of training, and for many of them, it offered the chance to meet the staff of their favorite team. Just about every troop that met with the coaches asked about the upcoming season. Some even had a prior connection with the staff.

"We all had a connection," Phillips said. "A couple of them I had tried to recruit and look at that just didn't work out. A lot of them had been to our football camp and a lot of them knew players on our football team. To get to their turf and watch those guys train and just to be able to break the monotony of the day was great. I saw one young man who had missed one of his daughter's birthdays and today was his son's birthday. I think this was a pick-me-up for him for us to be able to get around them at that time."

Phillips got just as much benefit out of the trip as the troops. As someone who has always been enamored with the military, the stop in Greenville to meet with the Kentucky National Guard was a thrilling experience for the Kentucky head coach. Whether it was the Blackhawk ride or just signing a football, Phillips appeared giddy and excited.

"I really just have always been intrigued with how they can get thousands of people to get them to move in the same direction under one command," Phillips said. "Similar to football, we only have to get 11 in the same direction on one command, but the way they can do it and be organized, just seeing the different drills and tactics they were trying to do maneuver, those things were unbelievable for me."

If anything, by the time Phillips arrived back in Lexington at 2 p.m. ET, he had gained a couple of lessons for his team as it begins fall camp this weekend.

"When I took over, I told our staff we have to be more demanding on our players, and we have been," Phillips said. "Now coming from here, I think we have to be even more demanding than we've been because there are a lot of people out there who are busting their butts to make sure we are able to do what we do."

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