I've always liked Joker Phillips, and for good reason.
In 1983, I was a young, dumb, freshman at UK. A little guy weighing 125 pounds on a rainy day (and 5-foot-8 in tennis shoes), but that didn't keep me from having a big mouth, sometimes a big mouth that got me into trouble.
On one particular occasion early in my first semester on campus, my girlfriend, who I was certifiably crazy about, was playing in an intramural basketball game against a team coached by UK's All-SEC running back George Adams and Joker -- I was keenly aware who Adams and Phillips were. Both had been at UK for a couple of years, and obviously, were two of the stars of the football team.
As the game was about to begin, someone realized there was no score keeper, and for some reason, I was asked to keep score, something I quickly agreed to do. So I dutifully took my place in a chair and table at mid-court, between the two teams' benches, and commenced to man the clock and score book.
At some point in the game, the play on the court became very physical. Play which was too physical for my taste, and made worse by the fact that it seemed Adams was encouraging his players to engage in what I thought was borderline dirty play.
Looking back, that was not the case. Adams was merely telling his players to play strong and not back down, but in my 18-year old mind, he was disrespecting my girlfriend's team, and most egregiously, disrespecting my girlfriend. So, against the grain of good judgment, I yelled over to where Adams was sitting on his team's bench. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I'm sure it was colorful, and sprinkled with a few expletives, and it seems the word "Neanderthals" may have crossed my lips as I described his team's play.
It was at that moment, that Adams, all 6-foot-1, 225-pounds of him, stood up and began walking the 20-feet toward me with a rather unpleasant look on his face. One which said, "I'm going to break you in half, boy." Seeing this, someone with a modicum of sense and self-preservation would have either run, apologized, or maybe even both. But not me.
I just stared right back at him. Saying with my eyes, "What are you gonna do?" Not knowing or wanting to admit that Adams could squash me like a pesky fly who's interrupted the family barbeque, I continued my staring contest, as Adams slowly made his way toward my location at center court. Slowly walking, because he was most likely weighing his options and the potential consequences in his mind, as he fantasized about tossing me head-first out the double-doors.
It was about that time, that Joker came to my rescue. Seeing what was happening from his seat down the bench (he heard what I yelled to Adams), Phillips stood up and started walking quickly toward Adams, eventually reaching the stud running back. Upon his arrival at Adams' side, Joker positioned himself between Adams, the behemoth with a legitimate beef, and me, the little guy with the super-sized attitude. The two UK football stars stood there. Toe to toe. The top of Joker's head coming to Adams' nose.
Adams didn't speak, though. It was all Joker. More than likely calming Adams' urge to beat me down with some sound advice about not killing/maiming/crushing members of the student body, even if the would-be flogging was richly deserved. This isn't Tennessee, after all, I imagine Joker uttered.
Adams, after hearing only a few seconds of Joker's thoughts on the matter, relented, and turned back toward his team's bench. Joker, like a father leading a son away from trouble, firmly gripped Adams' elbow (presumably to squelch any last minute mind change by Adams) as the two men slowly walked away. And like any good defender, Joker stayed between his man (Adams) and the basket (me) for the entire journey.
But, as Adams turned to "retreat" he shot me a look which can only be described as numbingly intimidating, even to a full-of-himself freshman with an inflated sense of his ability to take on someone twice his size. Adams was saying in his own frightening way, "You are one lucky little fella."
Make no mistake, Joker wasn't out to protect the guy who verbally challenged his teammate, rather, he was more interested in protecting Adams from a possible suspension and other unpleasantness. Regardless of his motivation, though, he saved my slim rear end from disaster. And for that, I've always liked and admired Joker Phillips.
Although Joker's tenure as UK's head football coach ends in great disappointment, all Kentucky football faithful should be thankful to Phillips for a plethora of accomplishments (no, saving me from a visit to the hospital is not one of them): It was Joker who mercifully ended UK's almost three decade losing streak to the Tennessee Volunteers; it was Joker who ended the Wildcats' decade long losing streak to South Carolina, and it was Joker who ended UK's 17 game losing streak to Steve Spurrier.
All Kentucky football faithful should be thankful to Joker for being a key component in UK appearing in five straight bowl games ('06-'10), and winning three consecutive post season contests ('06-'08). As offensive/recruiting coordinator under Rich Brooks ('04-'09), Joker's hands were all over UK's best cumulative four year (non-sanctioned) record since Bear Bryant left Lexington in 1953: 2006's 8-5 record (27 points per game average), 2007's 8-5 record (37 ppg) as well as 7-6 marks in both 2008 and 2009.
Additionally, Joker opened the LaGrange, Ga. "pipeline," bringing players such as Wesley Woodyard, Randall Burden, Braxton Kelley, and DeMoreo Ford to UK. Others from the state of Georgia who Joker brought to the Bluegrass include Trevard Lindley (with apologies to Jerry Claiborne, possibly the best corner back in UK history) and Sam Maxwell (who led the SEC in interceptions from the linebacker spot).
Phillips also was instrumental in UK experiencing terrific recruiting success in Louisville after Hal Mumme burned bridges (with much aplomb) in the Commonwealth's biggest city. Joker re-opened Louisville to Kentucky football by helping bring Keenan Burton (Manual HS), Corey Peters (Central HS), Myron Pryor (Eastern HS) and others to Lexington.
As a player, from 1981-1984, Phillips compiled 75 catches for 935 yards and nine touchdowns -- in an offense which held tight to a run-first philosophy -- allowing him to leave Kentucky as the No. 5 ranked receiver in Wildcat history.
For all that and more, I thank Joker for his loyal service to Kentucky football. He admirably served UK for 22 years with perpetual class and integrity, and though he leaves under less than ideal circumstances, don't allow the end of his tenure in Lexington to ultimately define his time in Lexington. For although his head coaching numbers are poor, he enriched Kentucky football like few before him ... and he saved one skinny, smark-aleck kid from sure destruction.
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