Kentucky coach focuses on football, not rumorsBy TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
It was only a matter of time before the question was presented to Kentucky coach Joker Phillips on Wednesday at SEC Media Days. A reporter pointed out that he’s seen Phillips’ name on several lists of coaches considered to be on the hot seat, and then asked Phillips if he thought it was unfair because he’s only been in charge in Lexington for two years.
“I’m not sitting down right now,” Phillips said, “so there’s nothing hot.”
Phillips said this with a grin but he certainly knows there’s talk about his job security. When Phillips took over in 2010 after serving as the coach-in-waiting under Rich Brooks, Kentucky went 6-7 but still made a bowl. Last year was a bit worse, as the Wildcats went 5-7 and failed to reach a bowl for the first time since 2005.
Kentucky may be a basketball school, but hey, this is still the SEC East — which happens to be Missouri’s new home. And being a perennial bottom-dweller isn’t an option, even if another sport at your school is top dog.
“Every year we get picked near the bottom of the SEC,” Wildcats center Matt Smith said. “We know that a lot of people don’t give us a whole lot of respect at the beginning of the season because normally we have a lot of young guys that we are counting on to step up.
“But those people that pick the preseason rankings don’t see us in the summer, and they don’t see what we are doing in between those white lines. It’s something we work hard at.”
One point of emphasis this offseason has been minimizing mistakes, particularly on offense. The Wildcats, who return six starters, were tied with Florida for the fourth most turnovers in the league with 16, and it’s probably not a coincidence that of the bottom five teams in that category — Auburn, South Carolina and Vanderbilt were the others — only the Gamecocks finished with a winning conference record.
“One of the big things that has really been killing us the last few years is the little things, the smallest mistakes,” guard Larry Warford said. “The smallest things kill our (drives).”
The Wildcats return five starters on defense but allowed SEC opponents to score an average of 30 points a game last season.
“We want to eliminate a lot of extra plays,” defensive end Collins Ukwu said. “Those are the big plays that offenses get (on) our defense, and that’s one of things (defensive coordinator Rick) Minter preaches to us. We feel like being in the film room this offseason helped us to be a lot better in knowing the defense.”
Phillips pointed out the Wildcats did finish on a high note last season, going 2-2 in their last four games and beating rival Tennessee for the first time in 27 years.
“Those last four games … there were a lot of true freshmen, true sophomores, that were thrust into playing significant roles on our football team,” Phillips said. “You saw a lot of those guys making huge plays for us.”
Phillips is clearly banking on that carrying over into this year. Otherwise, questions about his job security won’t be going away anytime soon.
“I don’t have time to deal with those things,” Phillips said. “All I need to do is make sure we’re putting a product on the field that can be successful.”