The Future is Now for Joker Phillips
Jan. 6, 2010
LEXINGTON, Ky. - For Joker Phillips and University of Kentucky football, the future is now.
Designated as UK's head coach of the future in January of 2008, the plan became reality on Wednesday when Phillips was appointed the head of the program after Rich Brooks' retirement.
Phillips is only the fifth Kentucky alumnus to become head coach of the Wildcats and the first since Jerry Claiborne, who led the Cats from 1982-89. 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.
"I'm excited for the future prospects of Kentucky football under the leadership of Joker Phillips," said UK President Lee T. Todd, Jr. "As a native Kentuckian and former UK player, he knows how much this program means to this University and the entire Commonwealth. We previously identified Joker as the best man to build on the successes enjoyed by our football program during the Rich Brooks era, and we are confident that his leadership and direction will take our program to new heights."
"Joker is a native of the Commonwealth, an alumnus of the University, a letterman and a person who has been an integral piece of our last four bowl victories in program history," said Mitch Barnhart, UK Director of Athletics. "He bleeds blue and believes in the foundational principles that Coach Brooks has put in place for the program.
"He has had success as a player, position coach, offensive coordinator and recruiter, and has been sought after by some of the nation's most prestigious college programs and the National Football League.
"Since naming him head coach of the future two years ago, continuity and consistency have become a competitive advantage for UK football, an advantage our program has not enjoyed very often during its history."
Phillips recently completed his fifth season as offensive coordinator and seventh as wide receivers coach in his current tour of duty at his alma mater. 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 15 th nationally.
Total offense also was a highlight of the '07 season. UK's total offense of 5,764 yards was the second-highest total in school history. The average of 443.4 yards per game is fourth in UK annals.
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.
After massive graduation losses from the '07 squad - losing Woodson, Burton, Johnson, Tamme and Little to the NFL - Phillips showed his ability to adapt and adjust during the last two seasons, turning 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 each season.
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.
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 continues 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 SI.com and Rivals.com.
Philips 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.
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 with 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. Clark's mark stood for six years. Another protégé, Kio Sanford, set three SEC records for kickoff returns in 1994. 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 during the 2002 season. Gamecock newcomer Troy Williamson had an outstanding rookie campaign, earned consensus SEC All-Freshman honors. He went on to be 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, Phillips guided first-team All-Big Ten wide receiver Ron Johnson, who went on to play for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Although he spent only one season with the Fighting Irish, Phillips placed two wideouts in the NFL, Javin Hunter with Baltimore and David Givens with New England.
As a coach, eight of his teams have gone to bowl games, including Kentucky to the 1993 Peach Bowl, 2006, `07 and '09 Music City Bowls and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl following the 2008 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 the former Leslie Stamatis.
The Joker Phillips File
What They Said and Wrote About Joker Phillips
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: