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Phillips staying true to himself, players, UK in facing departure

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Joker Phillips will coach the final two games of the 2012 season before being replaced as UK head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Joker Phillips will coach the final two games of the 2012 season before being replaced as UK head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The situation was an incredibly difficult one. Less than 48 hours removed from the announcement he would be replaced in the job he had long dreamed of having, Joker Phillips stepped to the podium with the sole purpose of fielding questions about the news.

It cannot have been a pleasant experience, trying to articulate the emotions of the last few days and explain his decision to coach the season's final two games, but Phillips conducted himself with the kind of class that has come to define his nearly 22 years as a UK player and coach.

He spoke for more than 15 minutes, reflecting on the eight bowl games he has been a part of as a Wildcat and the relationships he has built along the way. Even though his three year tenure at the helm of Kentucky football is weeks away from its end, Phillips feels nothing but gratitude.

"I'm very grateful for all the opportunity that everybody around here has given me," Phillips said. "Again, I say I came here as an 18-year-old kid. This place turned me into a man the first time. This time, all it did was strengthen me as a man."

After Nov. 24, when UK finishes its season at Tennessee, Phillips doesn't know what his future holds. Until then, he will be doing exactly what he's done throughout his career: leading a group of young men as best he can.

Phillips has continually preached to his players to approach everything they do as professionals. Throughout a season that has not gone the way anyone planned and with speculation about his job status running rampant, Phillips has lived that message.

"It really shows how much he cares about us to block out all that stuff and also how much of a professional he is," junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "I admire him for staying as strong as he did, not saying crazy things in the media. He just handled himself like a real professional and that's what he tells us: Be a professional. That's what he did the whole season."

But for about 24 hours, whether Phillips would finish the season was in doubt. It wasn't because of his disappointment that he would be returning. Rather, when UK takes the field for Senior Night on Nov. 17 against Samford, he wants it to be about the players taking the field in Commonwealth Stadium for the final time.

"I don't want to be a distraction, I don't," Phillips said. "I've had my Senior Day. I don't want an open casket. I don't want to be somebody's centerpiece. My grandmother-in-law, that's one of the things she said and I get that now. I want it to be about those seniors."

Ultimately, Phillips came to realize that, for the seniors to have the kind of sendoff they deserve, the coach who had helped turn them into men needed to be there.

"I've sat in their homes and told them - this was one of my selling points - I wanted to watch them grow up," Phillips said. "I don't know how many coaches say that, I want to watch you grow up. I heard that from them and that's the reason I want to be back (for the final two games), 'Coach, you said you wanted to watch us grow up.' That's the reason why I'm doing it and the only reason."

Senior center Matt Smith has been with Phillips for five seasons now, two with him leading the offense and three as head coach. To Smith, it's only right that Phillips be there to greet him and his family when he receives his framed Kentucky jersey.

"It makes it a little bit more special now that he told us he's going to be coaching these last two games with us," Smith said. "It's definitely going to be good to go out with him since he was the one that brought me in here."

As much as he will try to avoid it, the end of this season will be somewhat of a farewell for Phillips. His players want to send him out on a high note and fans want to recognize all the work he has put into the program for more than two decades. As a player, Phillips was a part of one of the best teams in school history, the 1984 squad that won nine games. As a coach, he helped lead UK to a school-record five bowl games in a row, including in 2007 when he was the offensive coordinator for one of the best offenses in UK history.

With that coaching chapter now closing, Phillips won't be turning his back on his roots. He is a native son of Kentucky and will continue to be a UK fan.

"The thing I would tell the Big Blue Nation is that I'm part of you," Phillips said.

Of course, his perspective is going to be a bit different from most fans. He has an intimate knowledge of the advantages and challenges of coaching at Kentucky. But more than anything else, he knows it takes a village to turn UK football into what fans, coaches, players and administrators all want it to be.

"We all have a hand in making sure this thing succeeds," Phillips said. "It's not moaning and groaning when we don't get the results. When this next guy doesn't get the results as fast as we want them, stand behind these players, the coaches. Stand behind him. I'll stay behind him. I'll be rooting like heck for him because if you want to get the thing done -- and from what I can see they want to get this thing done, the fans -- they must get behind this team. Show up in droves."

Just as is the case for his own career, Phillips sees that change lies ahead for Kentucky. That change will demand patience.

"When new systems come in a lot of things change," Phillips said. "These players might not fit the system of the next guy. They might have to get their own players in here. But again, give them time."

All he wanted as UK head coach was more time, and here Phillips is, asking for the same for the coach who will end up replacing him. Could there be a more honorable sentiment?

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