September 17th, 2012

Billy Reed: Phillips, Smith on Hot Seats


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Billy Reed: Phillips, Smith on Hot Seats
LCSN Executive Editor Billy Reed

Joker Phillips and John L. Smith not looking good early

Your Monday Morning Quarterback says that Joker Phillips and John L. Smith are dead men walking. Neither will be in their current job by Christmas. Heck, neither may be in their current job when their respective teams, Kentucky and Arkansas, when they meet Oct. 13 in Fayetteville.

Just kidding about that last comment. Their respective AD’s probably will let them twist slowly in the wind instead of pulling the plug the mid-season. Then again, nothing speaks so loudly in college football as empty seats – and both coaches have lost their fan bases with no hope of redemption.

In the case of Smith, who worked at Louisville before bolting for Michigan State and paving the way for Bobby Petrino to become the Cards’ head coach, there’s a certain amount of poetic justice at work. Before the season, he jilted his alma mater, Weber State, for the chance to clean up Petrino’s mess at Arkansas.

Never mind, said his apologists, that all he got from Arkansas was a one-year contract as an interim head coach. The Razorbacks were supposed to be in the national title hunt. Who could blame Smith, who’s north of 60 years old, for taking one last shot at the brass ring?

Now, a shocking upset to Louisiana-Monroe and a 52-0 roasting by top-ranked Alabama later, your Monday Morning Quarterback thinks both Arkansas and Smith got what they deserved.  Smith’s head coaching career is effectively done and the Razorbacks are just a pile of barbecue gone bad.

It’s a different, and sadder, case with Phillips. As disloyal as Smith was to Weber State, Phillips has been devoted to UK, where he was a receiver for Coach Jerry Claiborne in the 1980s. Under Rich Brooks, he became offensive coordinator and then coach-in-waiting.

For some reason, however, the UK fan base has never embraced Joker the way it should. Even before he coached his first game, you could hear some griping about the way UK handed him the job instead of conducting a national search. It was similar to the criticism C.M. Newton received for hiring Tubby Smith to replace Rick Pitino without seriously considering other candidates.

His first season, Phillips gave UK its first win over Steve Spurrier and took the Wildcats to a bowl (which it lost). The second, Phillips ended the Wildcats’ 25-year losing streak to Tennessee, but failed to go to a bowl. If progress was being made, it was difficult to see. The two-year record was 11-14.

Although it was obvious at the end of last season that Phillips had lost the fan base, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart stuck by his man. But after Saturday’s stunning overtime loss to Western Kentucky in Lexington, coming only two weeks after a one-sided loss to U of L, Barnhart will have to pull the plug on Phillips in order to save his own job.     

Your Monday Morning Quarterback types these words with a heavy heart. Phillips is a good and decent man. He’s a capable football coach. Like Claiborne, he recruits by the rules and stresses academics. But in the Southeastern Conference, where football is king, it’s all about the money and support that comes only with winning. At UK, you simply can’t lose to Western Kentucky and expect to keep your job.

If your MMQB had his way, Barnhart would fire Phillips now instead of later simply because Joker is too good a person to be exposed to the ugliness that surely will come his way the rest of the season. But UK has never fired a coach during a season and it probably won’t now.

As Phillips was hitting bottom, WKU Head Coach Willie Taggert was being carried off the field after his biggest head coaching win – and the Hilltoppers’ first victory over UK in football. Truth be told, WKU outplayed UK from the kickoff and deserved to win.

But it was Taggert’s boldness that will be remembered for years to come. First, after the Toppers had pulled to within one in OT, he decided to go for a two-point conversion and victory instead of settling for a tie. Second, he audaciously called a trick play that left the Wildcats befuddled and enabled Tagger to say, “WKU red is the new UK blue on our campus."

In other words, any WKU students still wearing UK gear will deserve whatever ridicule that get from their classmates.

At U of L, your MMQB has never seen a coach’s stock drop as fast as Charlie Strong’s did Saturday. At halftime, when the Cards were leading North Carolina 36-7, Strong was national Coach-of-the-Year material. By the end, when the dazed Cards staggered off the field with a 39-34 victory, Strong was being second-guessed for his conservative play-calling on both sides of the ball.

So to those U of L fans talking about an unbeaten season and a Top 10 ranking, your MMQB must quote the great philosopher Lee Corso: Not so fast, my friend.

Speaking of close calls, how about Trinity’s 14-13 escape against Cincinnati St. Xavier on Friday night? That should end the discussion about this season’s Rocks being as good as last season’s undefeated national champions. And it should give a glimmer of hope – a glimmer, mind you – to a Louisville St. Xavier that would secure a special place in history by giving the Tigers a monumental upset over the Rocks in Coach Bill Glaser’s last season.

Your MMQB is not going to address rumors about Trinity coach Bob Beatty becoming a candidate to replace Phillips at UK. The last time a major program reached into the high school ranks for a head coach was when Notre Dame hired Gerry Faust out of Cincinnati Moeller in 1980 – and we all know how that worked out.

Actually, in retrospect, Faust looks better than he did when Notre Dame fired him after the 1985 season and brought in Lou Holtz. He wasn’t much worse – if any at all – than the three men (Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis) who have coached Notre Dame between Holtz and current coach Brian Kelly.


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