Flashback: 1946 The University of Kentucky hires an up and coming young man by the name of Paul "Bear" Bryant. Bryant steps into Lexington and immediately becomes a success at UK. He coaches for eight seasons, never posts a losing record, wins not only UK's first SEC Championship, but their only National Championship as well in 1950. He does it without NCAA violations, runs a clean program, and takes UK to four bowl games as well. Bryant leaves UK with a record of 60-23-5 in eight years, and instead of being rewarded with the opportunity to make UK a National football powerhouse and remain at Kentucky, he is unceremoniously allowed to pack his bags and leave town, taking the best winning coach's record at UK with him. I want to emphasize that point. The best winning coach at UK left here in 1953. For 60 years UK has tolerated a losing atmosphere at UK, or at least not maintaining a winning one (more on that later).
Blanton Collier followed Bryant, and was able to maintain some of that winning atmosphere for the next eight seasons, himself compiling a 41-36-3 record. Not stellar, but there were highlights for UK in those eight years that the program could still use to claim legitimacy. then the fallout began.
Charlie Bradshaw, one of Bryant's stellar performers when he was at UK, became the next man to take the helm. The Bradshaw hire was seen as an attempt to return UK to the days when Bryant had managed to claim a hold on the upper eschelon of the SEC, and Bradshaw gave the program immediate respectability, based upon his alumni status and playing for the aforementioned Bryant. Bradshaw lasted only seven seasons and compiled only a 25-41-4 record. His lone highlight was a win over #1 Ole Miss in 1964.
John Ray followed Bradshaw, lasted only 4 years and managed only 10 wins, the best being a 10-9 win over the immortal Archie Manning and Ole Miss. Ray was widely considered the first real mistake hire made by UK. All of the other coaches had a pedigree of sorts or had successful ties to UK.
In 1973 the winds of change seemed to be blowing in Lexington. Fran Curci was hired at UK, a brand new Commonwealth Stadium opened to rave reviews, and slow but steady growth in an ever toughening SEC. Curci has his breakthrough season in 1976 as the Cats went 8-3 and won their second SEC Championship. That earned UK a trip to the Peach Bowl, where they slaughtered UNC 21-0. This solidified Curci as the top man and had him set to become the next big thing in SEC Football when the NCAA stepped in and slapped UK and Curci with violations. Curci's Wildcats went on to win 10 games the next season, beating everyone in sight for most of the year, although NCAA probation prevented them from entering postseason play, and was the beginning of the end for Curci's reign in Lexington. He lasted four more seasons at UK and quietly left, after posting a losing record all four years. Curci finished as the longest tentured UK coach with a record of 47-51-2.
Enter the beloved Jerry Claiborne. As a UK Alum, and a member of both a Bear Bryant team, and a coaching staff, UK finally thought they had a guy that was ready to put them back on the map. Claiborne had the pedigree, the experience, and the right attitude for everyone at Kentucky. He was a proven winner to boot. He won at Va. Tech, he won at Maryland. Claiborne won everywhere he went. He believed in doing things the right way, and he also believed in players going to class and winning there as well as on the field. But Claiborne too proved to be unable to get UK back on track, and after posting a 9-3 record in his third season, Claiborne never again saw daylight as his teams finished with either .500 records or less, with his last season at 6-5 the lone exception. His 41-46 record was not what UK was expecting when he was hired, to say the least. But Claiborne was UK through and through, and remains a popular former UK coach to this day.
Then we come to the modern-day era of UK Football. Another lame attempt at bringing in a "name" coach was made with the inept hiring of Bill Curry. Curry was shipped off from Alabama after he spent three seasons being unable to beat Auburn. You can win 20 games a year at Bama, but if you can't beat auburn, find somewhere else to coach. After Curry got his contract extension which said he got no pay raises and no ability to hire his own assistants, he saw the handwriting on the wall. Unfortunately UK thought that Curry could bring winning football back to Lexington, and he was given seven years and multiple chances to prove it. Only after a disasterous first season for a young Tim Couch at QB, who came to UK slated as the next Johnny Unitas by Curry, and then turned into an unsuccessful option QB, was Curry shown the door. In seven seasons at UK Curry won only 26 games, and only 14 SEC games.
Curry was replaced by Hal "what's he gonna do next" Mumme at UK in 1997. Mumme brought the "Air Raid" offense to UK to capitalize on young Tim Couch's strong arm. Mumme's Wildcats threw the ball at everything, and broke most of the records in the books doing it. They played little or no defense however, and in the SEC that will catch up with you eventually. However, while Mumme was at UK, Couch was a Heisman Finalist, Kentucky went to the Outback Bowl, and followed that with a trip to the Music City Bowl. It wasn't always pretty, but it was never boring. Unfortunately, as has been the pattern at UK since the Curci era, as soon as the Cats became successful the NCAA came knocking. Mumme and his staff were hit with over three dozen recruiting violations including payments to recruits. The scandal cost UK the man who was not only the most entertaining coach they had since Bryant, but also one of the coaches who put up wins. Mumme won 20 games in four years, compared with only 9 in the last three seasons of Curry's tenure. His coaching of Tim Couch is credited with getting Couch a #1 draft pick in the NFL, and no one has seen anything like that "Air Raid" offense since.
Mumme's replacement, Guy Morriss, took the Cats to seven wins in his first season, but NCAA probation prevented a bowl appearance. Morriss lasted only two seasons as contract offerings from UK were less than what he thought his efforts deserved. Mitch Barnhart decided he wanted someone he was comfortable with and the Rich Brooks era at UK began.
"Papa" Brooks as he was called by those who knew him and loved him best, was a no nonsense type of codgy old man and he really didn't care who knew it. He knew what the UK program needed, and he knew how to get it, but he felt as though he got no real support from above in doing what needed to be done to get there. Brooks coached UK for seven years, and posted the best record by a Kentucky Coach since Bryant in his last four seasons, all of which were winning campaigns. UK went to an unprecedented four straight bowl games, winning the first three. In Brooks next to last season, young Joeseph "Joker" Phillips was named "Head Coach In Waiting" which in hindsight, was probably not the smartest move ever made, but it was done to show recruits that there would be continuity inside the program as Brooks' inevitable departure was coming. Brooks had been vocal about UK not providing the facilities upgrades he was promised when hired, and the handwriting was on the wall. Fans had been vocal themselves about Brooks when he was trying to rebuild UK in his early years, but as he won the fans over, it was finally UK itself that refused to support Brooks at the end. Brooks finished 39-47 at UK, but never had a losing season after his third year.
All of which brings us to Joker Phillips. Joker Phillips is either one of the unluckiest coaches in the world, or he is one of the most challenged. Taking over from Brooks was not going to be easy, and Phillips knew it, but I doubt he could have seen what was really coming down the pike.
Brooks had developed a winning formula at UK. Win your non-conference games, try and get at least two SEC wins every season, get a bowl game bid, and keep the fans happy and a winning record in a place where winning records are scarce. Brooks made a habit of taking Louisville to the woodshed and that kept the UK loyalists firmly on his side once those winning seasons started rolling. Brooks used strategic recruiting, knowing he wasn't going to beat out the likes of Nick Saban and Alabama for five-star recruits, he stole a few here and there, and kept the skill positions filled with really good, if not great players. That allowed UK to excel when they got the likes of a Randall Cobb in the fold. Unfortunately, since taking the helm at UK, Phillips has not been able to find anyone to replace himself on that recruiting trail, and UK's performance is starting to show it. Combine that with the SEC stepping in and destroying Brooks' formula for success by expanding the league, and Phillips is caught in a no-win situation. Unless he can find some really big time recruits who want to play in the blue and white more than they want to go to big bowl games, and play for winning teams, his tenure at UK may not last much longer. Is it Joker's fault? Well, again, the crown rests heavy on the untrained head. If Joker can somehow pull UK out of this tailspin they seem to be in the last 10-12 games, then he will earn more time at the helm. If not, the cycle will repeat itself once again. Old habits are hard to break, and impossible for some. Unfortunately, Joker may just simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.