Phillips returns to Kentucky on opposing sidelines


Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips went 2-10 last season in his final year as Kentucky's head coach.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 8:07 p.m.

As a former player, assistant coach and head coach at Kentucky, Joker Phillips built an identity as one of Big Blue Nation's favorite football sons.

In his brief tenure as receivers coach at Florida, Phillips is building a different identity — one that involves developing playmakers.

On Saturday, Phillips will return to Commonwealth Stadium on the visiting sidelines when Florida plays at Kentucky. It will feel strange, for sure. A Franklin, Ky., native, Phillips rose from star receiver at Kentucky (1981-84), to graduate assistant coach (1989) to head coach (2010) when Rich Brooks retired. But Phillips' success story unraveled when Kentucky unceremoniously fired him in 2012 following a 2-10 season.

Is Phillips bitter? Motivated? We don't know for certain. Per Florida coach Will Muschamp's policy of not making position coaches accessible to the media, Phillips was not made available this week for interviews. But Florida senior receiver Solomon Patton said he sensed a little extra edge to Phillips this week in practice.

“He wants to make sure we do everything right,” Patton said. “That's understandable, considering that he was there last year. And he wants us to perform at our top level.”

So much went wrong for Phillips in three seasons in Lexington. Phillips went 13-24 in three seasons at UK that yielded just one bowl appearance. Overmatched talent-wise, Phillips went 4-20 in three seasons against Southeastern Conference teams and 1-2 against rival Louisville.

“I don't know if you could just put your finger on one thing, other than the fact that he got caught in a gap there where there were a couple of years where recruiting was down,” said veteran Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay. “They felt like last year, they had a better recruiting class, but there was nothing in between it and it all just kind of fell apart on him.”

Clay said he thinks Phillips will be well-received in his return to his alma mater.

“What you heard about Joker, even last year, was that people liked him, he's a great guy, he's just not a head coach ... we just needed to make a change,” Clay said. “They voiced their opinions by not coming to games. Their attendance was at record lows last year. In the Vanderbilt game, there was less than 20,000 people in the seats.”

Muschamp hired Phillips as receivers coach and recruiting coordinator last December. It has paid dividends. UF's receivers struggled last season and were coached by a graduate assistant (Bush Hamdan) after former receivers coach Aubrey Hill abruptly resigned in August of 2012.

Last season, Florida only had two catches longer than 26 yards. This season, the Gators already have five catches of 26 yards or longer through three games. Patton (212 yards, 2 TDs), Quinton Dunbar (183 yards) and Trey Burton (160) all have amassed more than 150 yards receiving.

“He's done an outstanding job,” Muschamp said. “I think if you look at three of our most productive players, Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Trey Burton, and there are some young people developing at the position that I'm pleased with. His production speaks for itself on tape. Your tape is your resume as a coach, what you put on tape is who you are.”

Patton, who followed up a 46-yard catch against Miami with a 52-yard TD catch against Tennessee, said Phillips is getting the receivers to run crisper routes in practice.

“We're learning how to run our routes the right way and at the right depth,” Patton said. “Just technique-wise and catching balls, he's made a huge impact.”

Patton described Phillips' coaching style as “demanding, but in a respectful way.”

“He's not just yelling at you to yell at you,” Patton said.

Whether Phillips can provide enough inside information on personnel to help the Gators remains to been seen. Kentucky is running a new offensive and defensive scheme under first-year coach Mark Stoops. But Florida starting quarterback Tyler Murphy said he intends to pick Phillips' brain about Kentucky defensive players this week in practice.

“He'll have some opinions on personnel, but other than that they are much different offensively and much different defensively in what they are doing,” Muschamp said. “Sometimes that stuff can be a little overrated.”

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