LEXINGTON, Ky. — Normally stoic and steady, Joker Phillips had trouble containing his emotions the day the University of Kentucky named him its head coach in waiting. “This is the place I've always wanted to be,” Phillips said at a news conference that cold day in January 2008. “I love this state. I love this university. I love Lexington.”
But sometimes even seemingly perfect unions don't last, and Kentucky football's relationship with its third-year head coach came to an end abruptly Sunday afternoon.
Via an open letter to fans, Mitch Barnhart announced Sunday that Kentucky will not retain Phillips next season.
“After much conversation, evaluation and prayer, I have determined that it is in the best interest of our athletics program to make a change in our football coaching staff at the conclusion of the season,” the UK athletics director said near the end of the 924-word letter that was posted on www.ukathletics.com with no warning.
“I do so with a heavy heart for a man who has served his alma mater for almost 22 years as a player and a coach.”
The letter said a search will begin immediately for Phillips' replacement, but the coach will be retained until the end of the season. Barnhart said the search will be “managed internally.”
Kentucky spokesman Dewayne Peevy said Barnhart isn't planning to hold a news conference to discuss Phillips' dismissal.
That left open several key questions that have yet to be answered, including whether Phillips, who has gone 12-23 in his nearly three seasons as UK coach, and his staff will finish out the remainder of the season, as Barnhart's letter suggested.
Per their contracts with the university, the assistant coaches and coordinators will stay on through the end of the season, but it's unclear if Phillips will be on the UK sideline for the Cats' home finale against Samford on Nov. 17 or at Tennessee on Nov. 24.
Peevy said that because of the upcoming bye week “there's no sense of urgency” to determine if Phillips will finish out the season.
“The telling of the staff and the players just happened today, so it hasn't been determined,” Peevy said. “It will probably come up tomorrow.”
When asked why, Peevy continued: “It just hasn't played out. With the emotion of the decision, they decided to discuss it later.”
Kentucky is planning to honor the remainder of Phillips' five-year contract, which was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2014, Peevy said.
UK athletics department officials will meet with the university legal office Monday to get the final numbers settled on the contract and what Kentucky will be required to pay.
According to the contract, the final figure appears to be in the neighborhood of $2.5 million over the next two years.
Later Sunday afternoon, UK athletics also released a statement from Phillips in which the former Cats wide receiver, turned assistant coach, turned coordinator, turned head coach, said: “We, as coaches, are measured on results. We didn't get the results we had worked and hoped for, therefore change is needed.
”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.“
Phillips went on to thank his staff, friends, family and players. Several messages left for the head coach were unanswered.
After Kentucky's 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt in front of a desolate Commonwealth Stadium Saturday, Phillips seemed to understand what was coming when he met with the media.
”I get this business,“ he said. ”I get the criticism. Nobody in this program wants this place to have success more than me, but I understand. I understand this is a business that is based on results, and we haven't gotten the results right now.“
The past three seasons have been complicated for Phillips, a Franklin, Ky., native, who played wide receiver at UK from 1981-84.
Under Phillips, Kentucky ended monstrous streaks, including beating Tennessee for the first time after 26 straight losses and topping South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier for the first time in 18 attempts.
That victory was UK's first over a top-10 team since 1977.
But there were history-making losses during his tenure, too, including the most recent loss to Vanderbilt this weekend, the Cats' worst to the Commodores since 1916.
That loss was Kentucky's eighth in a row.
”It has been a difficult season thus far, losses none of us wished to experience and injuries that have taken their toll on an already young squad,“ Barnhart said in his letter.
UK's offense, which lost both its starting quarterback and starting tailback for the second straight season, is dead last in the nation in total offense, averaging 291.3 yards and 16.4 points a game.
The Cats' youthful defense has struggled, too, and is currently 119th out of 120 teams in third-down efficiency.
In the past two seasons, UK is 2-13 in Southeastern Conference games and has lost those games by an average of 26.9 points.
Season ticket sales have plummeted more than 20 percent since last season and more than 30 percent from 2009, the height of ticket sales in the past decade.
Barnhart acknowledged, at least in part, that the lack of fans in the stands contributed to his ultimate decision.
”In the end there are realities we must face and overcome,“ he wrote. ”Right or wrong, we must respond to those realities to protect the 22 programs and 500-plus student-athletes for whom we provide.“
Distributed by MCT Information Services