LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips knew after Saturday’s embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt that keeping his job would be tough. The end came a day later.
Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart announced Phillips’ firing Sunday in an open letter on the Wildcats’ website. The letter stated Phillips would be let go, effective at the end of the season, but athletic department spokesman DeWayne Peevy later said the coach’s status for the final two games was still to being determined.
“We, as coaches, are measured on results,” Phillips said in a statement. “We didn’t get the results we had worked and hoped for, therefore change is needed. In my current 10-year stay at Kentucky, we’ve had some memorable moments as an assistant, coordinator and head coach. 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.”
The Wildcats lost their eighth straight game on Saturday, a 40-0 home loss to Vanderbilt. It was their worst loss to the Commodores in 96 years. Kentucky (1-9, 0-7 Southeastern Conference) is on the verge of going winless in the conference for the first time in school history.
Kentucky plays Samford on Nov. 17 before closing the season against SEC rival Tennessee.
“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,” Barnhart said. “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.”
Barnhart said the school will immediately begin a search for a new coach.
Phillips had two years left on a contract that pays him $1.7 million per season. Peevy said the school would honor the contract.
Phillips’ firing comes as no surprise.
The 49-year-old coach is 12-23 overall in three seasons at Kentucky. He led the Wildcats to a bowl game in his first season but they have gotten worse each season since.
Other than a victory over Kent State, Kentucky has rarely been competitive this season. The Wildcats lost for the first time at home to instate rival Western Kentucky, and were blown out at Florida, Arkansas and Missouri — the Tigers’ first-ever SEC win.
Wildcats fans have bombarded sports radio talk shows with calls for Phillips’ firing. The intensity picked up after the Western Kentucky loss and has remained steady since.
Attendance at Commonwealth Stadium has also dropped sharply from last season. The Wildcats entered the game against the Commodores averaging 51,255 — down from 60,007 in 2011.
Saturday’s attendance was a season-low 44,902.
Barnhart has been asked repeatedly about his coach, but responded by saying he would evaluate the program after the season as he does with all programs. In his letter, he said the circumstances of this season led him to make a decision now.
“In the end there are realities we must face and overcome,” Barnhart said. “Right or wrong, we must respond to those realities to protect the 22 programs and 500-plus student-athletes for whom we provide. Obviously our football program is not where we want it to be and we are all disappointed; coaches, players, administration and our fans.”
The loss to Vanderbilt marked a low for Kentucky. The Wildcats gained just 260 yards and trailed 27-0 at halftime.
Phillips seemed resigned to his fate after the game.
“If there was a decision either way,” Phillips said, “I would think it would be important for me or Mitch to come out and make a decision, either way. ... Help get another guy or help us in recruiting.”
Before his comments Saturday, Phillips handled the scrutiny by referring to his close relationship with Barnhart or cracking a joke. Last week, he said, “I was coming over here (to his weekly media session), and I got in the car, and my seat was hot.
“And I looked up, and I had hit the seat warmer.”
Injuries have forced Kentucky to play 26 freshmen against one of the nation’s toughest schedules, but in the SEC patience tends to be short — even at Kentucky where basketball is king.
When Phillips took over the football program, it was enjoying its best run ever.
Under former coach Rich Brooks, the Wildcats had established a level of respectability in football with four straight bowl appearances from 2006-2009 — a first for the program.
Phillips was Brooks’ hand-picked successor and he made it five straight bowl trips for the Wildcats in 2010. But that turned out to be the high point of his tenure.
“I am very appreciative of Mitch Barnhart and Rich Brooks for providing the opportunity to have been the head coach here,” Phillips said.
“I appreciate the Big Blue Nation and encourage the fans to stay behind their team going forward.”