Kevin C. Cox
It was only a matter of time, and it's apparently now time.
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart has fired Joker Phillips today after the coach had just under three seasons in the director's chair in Lexington. The meat of his open letter is here:
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. 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. Joker Phillips has carried the banner for the Blue and White with honor and pride. I have enjoyed working alongside him and am thankful for his friendship for the last decade. His concern for the entire program, his work and teaching of young people, his humanitarian work, and the friendship we all enjoy with him will long surpass the scoreboard. I want to thank him for all of those things on behalf of Kentucky.
The search for a new head coach will begin immediately and will be managed internally. I understand the challenge and significance of finding a new leader for our football program. It will be done with great concern for our student-athletes, students of the University of Kentucky, the Big Blue Nation and the citizens of the Commonwealth. Kentucky Football needs to be and will be a championship contender in the SEC.
People have been talking an awful lot about Gene Chizik and Derek Dooley being on the hot seat, but it became increasingly apparent through the year that Joker Phillips was the most fired SEC coach. His team is dreadful, and it traded its spot as a decent team that could go to marginal bowls regularly with Vanderbilt's doormat status. It was never more apparent than in Vandy's historic 40-0 win yesterday that they are two programs headed in opposite directions. The fact that the fans have quit showing up is the last straw; even the dreadful 2-9 outfit from 2004 enjoyed an average home crowd of 92% capacity. All of the gains made in the Rich Brooks era are gone.
The most obvious candidate to replace Phillips is WKU's Willie Taggart. He has turned around what was a dreadful program in I-A infancy to a team that went 7-5 last year and is 6-3 so far this season. Taggart's roots in the state of Kentucky go deep, and the biggest hurdle I see for Barnhart trying to land him is Taggart potentially getting a better job than UK's. If that isn't the fit, then I could see them trying to get the Brooks lightning to strike again by hiring a veteran hand like Phillip Fulmer. I suppose the Bobby Petrino rumors are going to start up too, though I don't know if it's even a possibility.
The letter from Barnhart does not mention an interim coach, so it would appear that Phillips will finish out the season.
Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde, who was once a beat writer in Louisville, has sources telling him some names for the job. Notably, Petrino is not on the school's initial wish list. He says Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes, Atlanta Falcons OC Dirk Koetter (who also was head coach at Boise State and Arizona State), and "several college offensive coordinators" are on Barnhart's list. Forde also says that Florida OC Brent Pease, a former UK assistant, and Texas Tech OC Neal Brown, a former UK player, are interested in the job. Dykes was a grad assistant in Lexington during the Hal Mumme era and runs an Air Raid derivative offense.