When Kentucky hired Rich Brooks, not a whole lot of people expected much out of him.
He had been out of coaching for two years and hadn't coached in college in over ten years. Kentucky was heading into the teeth of problems caused by the probation that Hal Mumme had earned for the program. UK has never really been a football power anyway, and it was doubtful that an old coaching retread could change that.
Three years into the process, people didn't have much reason to change their minds. Kentucky had won nine total games, just four of them in SEC play. UK gave Brooks another year knowing that it was an uphill climb out of probation, but few outside Lexington gave him a shot to survive the year.
In actuality Kentucky won four SEC games in 2006, the most since 1999, and won eight games overall, the highest win count since a 9-3 season in 1984. The surge came largely thanks to quarterback Andre' Woodson leading the conference's most potent passing attack. Engineering that offense was Joker Phillips, a former Wildcat receiver who had been the offensive coordinator since 2005.
Fast forward four years. Phillips is now taking over for Brooks after the retiring coach had led the team to four straight bowls. That's quite a streak for Kentucky as a program, but the bids came largely thanks to a collection of terrible non-conference opponents and eking out the required number of in-conference wins. UK never did get back up to .500 in SEC play again, but it won just enough to keep going to the post season.
The pressure is now on Phillips to continue that streak in more ways than one. Obviously one way is that now he's the head coach, so the buck stops there. The other part of it is that as the defense has gotten better over the years ('09 was its best performance in preventing points in the Brooks era), Phillips' offense regressed severely without Woodson behind center.
Even though last year was its best job in scoring defense in conference games, Kentucky only ranked ninth in the league in that category. It's unlikely that the defense will make a quantum leap forward without Brooks around, so the burden falls on Phillips to get the offense in good enough shape to outscore some teams in 2010 to keep the bowl streak alive.
Morgan Newton had a hold on the starting quarterback job going into spring practice, but the fact that neither he nor Mike Hartline can't put distance between himself and the other is troubling. The latter has never been able to function all that well as an SEC quarterback in all his years in Lexington, so the inability to find someone better has to be frustrating.
Helping things out is the return of the speedy senior running back Derrick Locke and the presence of Mr. Do-It-All, Randall Cobb. The two of them make for a dangerous pair, and as a bonus, Cobb can do some things as a quarterback if the normal guys can't get anything going. The two of them give Phillips some really solid options on a team in desperate need of some help on that side of the ball.
It's never an easy road to get Kentucky into bowls, and it will be harder in coming years now that Louisville has canned Steve Kragthorpe. The brain trust at Kentucky sure thought Phillips was the right guy for the job when it made him head coach in waiting in 2008, and it still believed in him in 2010 when it made good on that promise after Brooks made his retirement official.
The milquetoast offensive performances of the past two years have caused some to doubt if that was the right way to go. But, if the doubters are just as right about Phillips as they were about Brooks, Kentucky should do just fine.