Kentucky's Joker Phillips knows how to recruit and coach

August 02, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

The first time Bill Curry met Joker Phillips, he knew there was something special about him.

"He's extremely bright. He's honest," said Curry, the former head coach at Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia Tech. "When he coached for me, he would walk in my office, shut the door and tell me some things I really did not want to hear. He will do that. Very few men would. He's courageous.

"He has charisma. A coach has to have some appeal to him. He has it. The players respond to him. They play hard for him. To be a successful coach, that's crucial."

Phillips, now Kentucky's recruiting coordinator and receivers coach, played for the Wildcats from 1981-84 under coach Jerry Claiborne. He coached at Kentucky from 1988-96, including seven years under Curry.


When Curry lost his job, Phillips landed coaching jobs at Notre Dame, Minnesota, Cincinnati and South Carolina before returning to Kentucky when Rich Brooks was named coach two years ago.

"Joker is a great guy," said South Carolina senior offensive lineman John Strickland. "I really liked him a lot even though he was not my position coach. He does his job well. I think he's a great coach. I would imagine everyone at Kentucky loves him. He has that kind of personality."

Curry quickly learned just how popular that personality was across Kentucky.

"When you go anywhere around Kentucky with Joker Phillips, you are riding around with a legend," said Curry, now a college football TV color analyst. "He comes into a town in Kentucky and everybody knows him. He was able to recruit extremely well for us.

"He can recruit in any kind of environment, too. It doesn't matter if it is African-American, Caucasian, upper class, or lower class. He could relate to all people in all homes. He's just priceless."

Phillips has been credited with helping elevate Kentucky's recruiting in recent months. He's helped Brooks put together a recruiting plan that has put more emphasis on Ohio, South Carolina and Georgia as well as keeping in-state recruiting as a top priority.

"Joker Phillips is a tireless worker," Brooks said. "Whatever needs doing, he does it for us. He's very good at relating to players and their families and is also good at evaluating and identifying talent."

He can go from likable recruiter to demanding coach

Curry also says Phillips has the ability to go from easy-going, likable recruiter to demanding coach, something not everyone can do.

"A lot of days players didn't like him. That's good," Curry said. "He didn't care if they liked him on the field. He's going to be tough. He's going to make them run out their routes. He's going to make them do things right.

"There are some really good recruiters who are not good coaches and some great coaches who are not very good recruiters. It's hard to be both, but Joker is."

Several UK receivers complained last year that Phillips was far harder on them than former receivers coach Harold Jackson, a former All-Pro receiver. Yet one of those players, Harrodsburg's Daniel Hopewell, said he learned more about route running and recognizing defenses last year than he had in his previous seasons combined at UK.

"Harold has a different demeanor about him," Curry said. "I played (in the NFL) with Harold. He's a gentle, kind soul. Some coaches, especially receiver coaches, can do it that way and get the job done. But Joker is not going to do it that way.

"He's not that gentle, kind coach on the practice field. As soon as you get off the field, he changes. You can demand anything on the field if they know you care about them off the field. With Joker, players know that.

"If I had to say one thing was his strongest suit, it would be that he can be as tough as nails on the field and then be available to players and listen to them off the field. Not everybody can do that."

Curry said he still remembers a letter he got from a player's mother after he left Kentucky. She wrote that she thought Curry and Phillips had been too hard on her son, but then realized she was wrong and wrote to thank the coaches for what they did.

"Joker did the work. I just backed him up," Curry said. "Sometimes a player would come to me and say, 'Coach Phillips is too tough. He's demanding too much.' I always responded, 'He is demanding precisely what I demand of him. Now what is your problem?'"

Curry always visits with Phillips when he comes to Kentucky

Curry says he always visits with Phillips when he comes to Kentucky to work a game.

"Once you have been in a foxhole together, some of the friendships last forever," Curry said. "Some folks I've lost touch with, but not Joker. Every now and then the phone will ring and it will be Joker. It's always wonderful to hear from him. I really love him and always will. He's that special."

Recently Mississippi State made Sylvester Croom the first African-American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference. Curry thinks Phillips could eventually be a head coach.

"I've always thought he had that potential, but I am not sure he wants to," Curry said. "There were times when I talked to him about being an offensive coordinator, but he didn't want to do it. He liked being involved with the players too much. That would be the next step for him. He's certainly capable of being a head coach. He's a big-leaguer."

While Curry did not find the success at Kentucky he hoped, he does have many fond memories of his years with the Wildcats. However, Phillips still goes to the top of his list.

"Working with him was one of the real positive parts of my Kentucky experience," Curry said. "There were a lot of positive parts, but Joker was certainly in the top few. We were lucky to have him then and Kentucky is lucky to have him now."

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