It was the final game of the 2011 regular season and the Kentucky football team prepared to host its oldest rival, Tennessee. There was but one slight problem.
The Wildcats didn't have a healthy quarterback.
UK's top two QBs were injured and Coach Joker Phillips refused to sacrifice the future of a talented freshman by breaking his redshirt for one game. So, what to do?
Once again showing the ability to adapt that he has displayed during his career, Phillips and the UK staff came up with an unlikely maneuver -- turn senior wide receiver Matt Roark into a quarterback, give him a limited number of plays to master, and attack the opponent with what basically amounted to the old single-wing offense.
The plan worked perfectly. UK's ground attack controlled the ball for almost 36 minutes, Roark executed the simple game plan without a single turnover, and the Wildcat defense was stalwart.
The result was a 10-7 victory, ending a 26-year losing streak against the Volunteers. In recognition of the unorthodox strategy and improbable outcome, ESPN.com honored Phillips with an SEC "helmet sticker."
The simple strategy enabled Roark and the Wildcats to "play fast," a trademark philosophy of Phillips. It's a philosophy he embraces in coaching as well.
Phillips has been a bundle of energy since taking over the UK head coaching position on Jan. 6, 2010. From coaching to recruiting to the dozens of personal appearances he has made across the South, Phillips has been tireless in promoting the vision for his passion -- Kentucky football.
The foundation of his fervor is easy to see. A native Kentuckian and former Wildcat player, Phillips is only the fifth Kentucky alumnus to become head coach of the Wildcats. Phillips' appointment also has significance in that he is the Wildcats' first African-American head football coach and only the second in the history of the Southeastern Conference. Phillips' first act as head coach was to imprint his personal philosophy, "Operation Win," on the team -- win in the classroom, win in the community and win on the field.
Phillips' energy has led to some positive results in recruiting and on the field, where Phillips became the first coach in Kentucky history to take a team to a bowl game in his first season. In addition, Phillips won more games than any first-year UK coach since Blanton Collier in 1954. His teams also have broken long-time streaks with wins over South Carolina and Tennessee.
Led UK to Highest Point Total in School History Prior to being elevated to head coach, Phillips was on the staff of Coach Rich Brooks from 2003-09, including the last five seasons as offensive coordinator. Named offensive coordinator before the 2005 season, Phillips made an immediate impact as Kentucky improved its scoring average and total offense in each of the first three years under Phillips' direction.
The yearly progression reached its zenith when Kentucky scored a school-record 475 points during its 13-game schedule in 2007, helping spark the Wildcats to a second-consecutive Music City Bowl championship. UK's average of 36.5 points per game ranked 15th nationally.
Total offense also was a highlight of the '07 season. UK's total offense of 5,764 yards was the second highest in school history. The average of 443.4 yards per game is fourth in UK annals.
Phillips was nationally acclaimed following Kentucky's 43-37 upset of No. 1 LSU. He was named National Coordinator of the Week by Rivals.com and the National Offensive Coordinator of the Week by the Master Coaches Survey.
Phillips' offensive style has shown flexibility and balance between the run and the pass. During his time as offensive coordinator, UK has had a 3,000-yard passer (André Woodson, who accomplished the feat twice), two 1,000-yard receivers (Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Rafael Little, who reached the mark twice).
Balance is shown by the fact that Kentucky led the SEC in passing yardage in 2007 while also rushing for 2,021 yards, 155.5 yards per game and 4.2 yards per attempt. All three rushing marks were UK's best in a dozen seasons, since 1995. The '07 season was the first time in school history that UK averaged at least 250 passing yards per game while rushing for at least 150 yards per game.
As wide receivers coach, Phillips has mentored some of the best in school history - Burton, Johnson, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derek Abney. With Burton, Johnson and Lyons leading the way, along with tight end Jacob Tamme and tailback Rafael Little, Kentucky was the only team in the nation in 2007 that had five players with at least 1,000 receiving yards during their careers.
Phillips' players have their names etched into the NCAA, SEC and UK record books.
Showed the Ability to Adapt and Adjust After massive graduation losses from the '07 squad - losing Woodson, Burton, Johnson, Tamme and Little to the NFL - Phillips turned in some of his most astute coaching performances.
Injuries, inexperience and a disciplinary dismissal forced Phillips and quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders to juggle four QBs -- Mike Hartline, Randall Cobb, Morgan Newton and Will Fidler - in 2008 and 2009. Even though there was a rotation of players in the offense's most important position, Phillips figured out a way to generate enough points to win seven games both seasons.
Despite fielding a virtually new offensive lineup in 2008, and losing his potential starting quarterback on the first day of fall practice, Phillips still managed to finish in the top half of the SEC in scoring offense while helping the Wildcats win a third-consecutive bowl game.
The 2009 season showed more of Phillips' ability to adapt to a changing landscape. After five games, with Hartline as the starting quarterback, Phillips had the perfect balance he was looking for with 167.4 rushing yards and 167.4 passing yards per game. But when Hartline was injured, and a true freshman stepped into the starting role, the Wildcats became tilted heavily toward the run.
And, even though everyone in the stadium knew UK had become a run-first offense, Phillips managed to keep the opponent off-balance and score sufficient points to win five of the last eight games, including ground-breaking victories on the road at Auburn and Georgia. For the season, Kentucky rushed for 191.2 yards per game and a 4.5 average per carry, the team's best marks in 14 years.
One of the Nation's Top Recruiters In addition to his coaching, Phillips also is a highly effective recruiter, as his straightforward, likeable personality earns the trust of young players and their families. He served as UK's recruiting coordinator in 2003-04, giving up that post because of his additional offensive responsibilities, but continued to be deeply involved in recruiting.
Phillips' abilities in that area have become known across the country, as he has been identified as one of the nation's top recruiters by SportsIllustrated.com and Rivals.com.
Phillips has gained additional coaching experience by working postseason all-star games. He was the winning head coach in the 2005 Magnolia Classic. Following the 2006 season, he was an assistant on the winning squad in the IntaJuice North-South All-Star Game.
A Longtime Kentuckian and Wildcat Phillips is a familiar face around Kentucky football. He played at UK from 1981-84 and was on the football staff from 1988-96. As a player, Phillips helped lead the Wildcats to appearances in the Hall of Fame Bowl in his junior and senior seasons. He finished his playing days tied for fifth on the UK career receiving list with 75 catches for 935 yards and nine touchdowns. He went on to play a total of three professional seasons with the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (1985, '87) and Toronto in the Canadian Football League (1986).
Phillips began his coaching career at his alma mater as a graduate assistant in 1988-89. In 1990, he served as an assistant recruiting coordinator. He was a full-time assistant coach, in charge of the wide receivers, from 1991-96. In 1991, under Phillips' guidance, wide receiver Neal Clark broke the single-season record for pass receptions with 47 catches. Craig Yeast, who became the SEC's all-time leading receiver, played his first two seasons under Phillips in 1995-96.
Phillips returned to UK from South Carolina, where he coached the wide receivers under Coach Lou Holtz in 2002. Gamecock newcomer Troy Williamson earned SEC All-Freshman honors that year and went on to become the No. 7 pick in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft.
Phillips also has coached at Cincinnati (1997-98), Minnesota (1999-2000) and Notre Dame (2001). At Minnesota, he guided All-Big Ten wide receiver Ron Johnson, who went on to play for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. In his year at Notre Dame, Phillips placed two wideouts in the NFL, Javin Hunter and David Givens.
As a coach, nine of his teams have gone to bowl games, including UK to the 1993 Peach Bowl, 2006, `07 and '09 Music City Bowls, the Liberty Bowl following the 2008 season and the BBVA Compass Bowl after the 2010 season; Cincinnati to the 1997 Humanitarian Bowl; and Minnesota to the 1999 Sun Bowl and 2000 Micronpc.com Bowl.
Phillips is a native of Franklin, Ky., and was a three-sport standout - football, basketball and track - at Franklin-Simpson High School. He is married to Dr. Leslie Phillips, a professor at Georgetown College.
Quotes from January, 2008, when Phillips was named head coach of the future. Quotes are from articles in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Louisville Courier-Journal, Danville Advocate-Messenger, The Cats' Pause, KentuckySportsReport.com, Nashville Tennessean:
"Phillips' credentials certainly scream head coach. He's been an outstanding position coach, ace recruiter, master motivator and his (2006-07) offenses at UK have been a pair of the best in school history. (His) ability to connect with players, their families and coaches may be his greatest strength." - Matt May, The Cats' Pause
"Even when he was recruiting me, and when I got here as a freshman, he seemed like a head coach. He shows that just in the way he goes about his business." - All-SEC linebacker Wesley Woodyard, now with the Denver Broncos
"I just think it was a great move by the university and a great move for the program. Coach Joker was instrumental in my career. He knows how to go out and get players, and he recognizes how to get the best out of the players he brings in. You know the program will be in good hands because he care so much about Kentucky football." - All-SEC tight end Jacob Tamme, now with the Indianapolis Colts
"I was excited when I heard it. When I talked to people back home (in Northern Kentucky), they all love Joker. He's the right man for the job." -- All-SEC and NFL quarterback Jared Lorenzen
"He has all the charisma a head coach would have. I'm glad Kentucky did what they had to do to keep him, because other people were going to keep coming after him. With Joker Phillips, they're not just making a good minority hire. They're making a great hire, period." - Lou Holtz, longtime head coach and current ESPN analyst
"And when Phillips choked up Friday talking about his home state, and his hometown of Franklin, it reminded you of the Kentucky kids - Andre' Woodson, Jacob Tamme, Keenan Burton, to name three - who helped turn the program around. They were Kentucky kids who wanted to be here, succeed here and build a foundation for success. Joker Phillips is one of those Kentucky kids. He's a reason why right now, in football, Kentucky has a good thing going. It's smart to take advantage of it." - John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader
"I felt like he was a guy I could really relate to. When he was recruiting me, he was really open and honest the whole time about me making the best decision for myself and not downplaying anybody else. He just played up Kentucky. I like that." - 2009 All-SEC defensive tackle Corey Peters
"Cats are smart to name Phillips future coach" - Louisville Courier-Journal headline of a column by Rick Bozich
"There's not a finer man than Joker Phillips. When he was a kid, he was never in trouble. He hung around the little league park to help kids when he was in high school. He was just a nice kid to be around. You knew he was going to be a good guy. I'm not surprised in the least that he has been this successful." - Gary Moyers of the Danville Advocate-Messenger , who covered Phillips for the Bowling Green Daily News during the coach's high school playing days
"Joker Phillips is one of the finest college football coaches I know. He's a fine person, too. That's why I believe the football program will be in fine hands once current coach Rich Brooks decides to leave the program on his own terms." - Keith Taylor, KentuckySportsReport.com
"Smart move for Kentucky to commit to offensive coordinator Joker Phillips. The Cats told Phillips he is the next head football coach when Rich Brooks steps down. I'm surprised a major college hasn't gone after Phillips before now." - Joe Biddle, Nashville Tennessean