LEXINGTONÃ?Â¿— Kentucky coach Joker Phillips isn’t satisfied with the status quo.
Sure Phillips kept Kentucky’s bowl streak alive at five in his first season as coach of the Wildcats. Sure the Wildcats ended a 17-game losing streak against SouthÃ?Â¿Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and defeated the Gamecocks for the first time since 1999 with a stunning 31-28 victory seven games into Phillips’ tenure as the team’s coach. Phillips wants more than just an annual bowl appearance and an end to long losing streaks every now and then.
Buried underneath the team’s fifth consecutive bowl appearance and a 6-7 record, were four losses to Southeastern Conference foes by 10 points or less, resulting in a 2-6 record in the league. The Wildcats lost to eventual national champion Auburn by three points, Ole Miss and Mississippi State by seven points and lost four of their last six games following the stunning upset over the Gamecocks.
“We're not here to try to just compete for our sixth straight bowl game,” he said during the team’s annual Media Day gathering Friday at Commonwealth Stadium. “You guys can say what you want about that. We're not. We came here, and we were able to track the coaches that we have, we've got great coaches on this staff, we were able to track those guys, and they came here to win, not just to go to a bowl game. We want to win championships here.”
Phillips hopes tweaking his team’s coaching staff, especially on defense, produces a fresh approach and better results in the second season of “Operation Win.” Frustrated by his team’s lack of production on defense, Phillips hired co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter, a noted defensive specialist and former coach at the University of Cincinnati.
Although results have yet to be seen on the field, Phillips has noticed in his team’s demeanor behind the scenes.
“Defensively, I think the attitude of our defense, the mindset, those things have definitely taken a turn for the better,” Phillips said. “Rick — all he talks about is turnovers, minus yardage plays and those things, and those are the things that we were looking for when we went out and got Rick — is for us to be successful at the level that we want to be successful, you've got to play dominant defense, not good, not great defense, you've got to play dominant defense.
“If you look at the teams that are winning nine, 10, 11, 12 games in this league, that's what they do, they play dominant defense. We've been scoring points. We've got to play dominant defense, and that's the mindset that Rick has brought to this football team.”
To be a dominant force on defense — a rare trait at Kentucky — Phillips said having the right frame of mind is required.
“A lot of it is attitude,” the Kentucky coach said. “We've got our top 11 tacklers back from last year. It's a mindset. Our guys got to think takeaways, they've got to think scoring. Nobody says that you can't score on defense, and Rick tells the defense, there's more ways you can score on defense than there is on offense; takeaways, safeties, all kinds of ways you can score on defense. So our guys talk about scoring and minus yards and takeaways. Those are big things that you have to have if you're going to play dominant defense.”
Now that he has a better grip on handling his own program, Phillips is more comfortable than he was a year ago.
“There's no substitute for experience, and I feel a year of experience has definitely helped,” he said with a smile.
Experience is usually the best teacher.