In the movie, The Matrix, Agent Smith had Neo pinned to the tracks in the subway with a train rushing toward them. "Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson?" Smith said. "That is the sound of... inevitability."
Inevitability. We know what that sounds like, too. We knew, and have known for some time, that Phillips would not be retained. Today, Mitch Barnhart announced that the inevitable had become the immediate.
Yesterday's 40-0 shutout by Vanderbilt is perhaps the lowest point in Kentucky football history since Hal Mumme and his staff were fired and Kentucky placed on NCAA probation back in 2000. In the ensuing 12 years, we have seen the program turn around into a competitive one, and then turn back into an embarrassing doormat this year.
The events of yesterday and the advent of a bye week provided an opportunity that Barnhart decided not to pass up. You have seen the open letter from Barnhart, and if not, you can find it here.
In my judgment, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the letter. Given the relationship between the two men, it is likely that Barnhart wanted to address himself to this unpleasant task in the lowest-key way possible, and a post on the athletics site rather than a press release or news conference is just about as low-key as you can possibly get. Barnhart didn't want to be seen as heaving Phillips under the bus in a public way, or dancing on his rhetorical grave. Instead, he simply posted it on the Internet and refused to comment.
Many fans have criticized Barnhart's handling of the situation, but the truth of the matter is, there is no good way. I advocated waiting until the end of the season, as did former UK coach Rich Brooks, a guy who knows a thing or two about college football. With that said, Phillips all but begged Barnhart to sack him yesterday, and to do it right away:
Phillips said he doesn’t expect Barnhart to break from his oft-repeated stance, that he’ll evaluate the coach after the season. Phillips said if a decision had been made behind closed doors, it would be in everyone’s best interest to just come out and say it, to "help get another guy or help us in recruiting."
I think this is a sign that decision had been made, and my guess is it was made weeks ago. God knows that a friend hates to hear that, but a friend also knows that this is business. I am not sure whether Barnhart himself agrees with his decision to drop the hammer now, but I honestly believe after yesterday, he saw it as an act of mercy. I am not going to second guess his wisdom here.
Joker Phillips' response to his demise as coach was typically classy and sympathetic to his friend:
We, as coaches, are measured on results. We didn’t get the results we had worked and hoped for, therefore change is needed. In my current 10-year stay at Kentucky, we’ve had some memorable moments as an assistant, coordinator and head coach. We’ve had the opportunity to coach some fine young men and I am grateful to have had the privilege of watching them grow as players, as students and as people.
I am very appreciative of Mitch Barnhart and Rich Brooks for providing the opportunity to have been the head coach here. Mitch is the best athletic director I’ve ever been associated with. He’s fair and honest and he’s “all in” in terms of student-athletes’ well-being. Rich is the best mentor a young coach could ever have. I learned a lot from him in terms of plowing ahead. They are dear friends. Dr. Lee Todd and Dr. Eli Capilouto have both been very supportive. I appreciate the Big Blue Nation and encourage the fans to stay behind their team going forward.
I love our players and am proud to be associated with them. I expect them to continue the behavior we have asked of them academically, socially and with football. I’m thankful for the staff’s hard work, dedication, and what they have done in coaching and mentoring the players. I’d like to thank my wife and family for all their support and for being behind me 100 percent.
I agree with Phillips about Barnhart. I think this season has been vastly more difficult for him than Gillispie's last season as Kentucky head coach. Despite the somber façade Barnhart put on in Gillispie's case, he had no problem with calling a full-blown news conference in the middle of the week, the "full Monte" of firings. I think behind that frown, he was doing a little happy dance. In retrospect, if so, it was certainly justified.
This was the exact opposite, and the circumstances certainly make the low-key approach a welcome one. Phillips has done everything the right way. Everything, that is, but one -- win football games. Unfortunately, that's the one thing that you absolutely must do, even at Kentucky.
I am not sad, really. I hate it for Joker that he failed, but failure happens to us all. Most of us are better off for our failures, and psychologists have long since determined that we usually learn more from our failures than our successes. Phillips will be coordinator somewhere, or a head coach at a non-BCS program. He may even rise back to the BCS level one day, when he's learned enough. Phillips is a relatively young man.
Coaching a football team at this level in the SEC is hard. It will take a very special, committed and talented person to lead Kentucky back up where we were three years ago. Along the way, the program will face difficulties, and those difficulties will start right away. We will lose recruits. We will lose players. How many of either we do not know, but we should be prepared for a lot of bad news as the repercussions of a firing are always felt.
However, there is also good news. The fans will be back next year. The catharsis provided by the ending of the Phillips tenure will bring with it hope for improvement. The hiring of the new head man will be welcomed, though perhaps not universally. Season ticket sales will go back up. Students will return. Kentucky football will once again be seen by more people than could fill Rupp Arena.
There will be bumps in the road, and we all know that. We may not be successful next year, although there is reason to believe that we will if we don't lose too much of our talent to transfer. All that will have to play itself out in the coming days.
No matter what happens, It will be good to talk about something positive relative to the football program around here again, rather than constantly wondering when the hammer will fall and lamenting the latest loss or condition of the program. Some of you will demand all sorts of changes, but this is enough for now, in my opinion. All Kentucky's energy needs to be focused on finding a replacement, and the sooner, the better, although not so soon that we don't give ourselves a chance to get the best person we can find. Other changes need to be made, but they can wait a bit.
Barnhart is apparently going to keep his own counsel on who he recruits, along with, I'm sure, some advice from people close to him that he trusts. It appears there will be no committee, or anything like that. I will not pass judgment on the methodology, only on the results. There are lots of good ways to do this, and each of them has its strengths and weaknesses. I do hope he consults Howard Schnellenberger, who has offered himself as a resource and knows a thing or two about building programs. As a Kentucky alumnus, he will certainly have our best interests at heart. Rich Brooks would also be a welcome confidant.
But for now, let's move confidently forward. Let the recriminations end for the nonce. If there are benefits to firing head coaches at this point in the season, and there possibly are some, let's take the full measure of them and their advantages. As fans, let us fall behind our leadership and show our faith in them, and thank our now- or soon-to-be-former coaches for their service, dedication, and hard work. Let us also remember when we last failed, and apply the Golden Rule.
So now, once again, let us begin the work of creating a winning football program. We have been here before. Let's try to do better this time than last.