Joker Phillips’ career with the Kentucky Wildcats spanned parts of four decades including 23 seasons and hundreds of games as a player, graduate assistant, assistant coach, coordinator and head coach.
On Saturday, for just the second time in his 26-year coaching career, Phillips will step foot into Commonwealth Stadium as a visitor, an unwelcome guest looking to earn a victory with his new team, the Florida Gators.
Due to program regulations, Phillips – a position coach – was not made available to speak with the media, so he could not directly discuss his thoughts and feelings entering Saturday’s contest. But other coaches and players provided were able to provide their opinions on his behalf.
“I know as a player and a coach there, as a coordinator and a head coach, there’s no question I’m sure he’ll be emotional about that. Any time you spend a lot of time at a place, as much time as we spend hours in the office and working hard for a university, there’s no question that’s part of it,” head coach Will Muschamp said.
“Joker is a professional. He’ll handle it the right way. Any time you spend a large amount of your life as a player and as an assistant, a coordinator and a head coach [at one school], certainly you’re invested in that university. …
“You do feel a little different going back to a place like that that you spent so much time. People don’t realize the amount of time and effort we put in to what we do, giving our time to young people and dedication to the administration and all the things involved with a university. And then when you’re not there anymore, for whatever reason, it takes a little part away from you. You always leave something where you’ve been before. I’m sure Joker feels the same way.
“He and I talked a little bit about it Sunday night, the amount of time he spent in Lexington and how much he enjoyed it and the situation there. He really has fond memories of his time at Kentucky.”
Neither defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin nor offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who held the same position with the Wildcats from 2001-02, thought Phillips being the team’s head coach for the last three seasons would provide the Gators with any substantial advantage heading into the showdown.
“Obviously Joker’s opinion or evaluation helps us in this matter. He coached a lot of those guys. I don’t know from a scheme standpoint how much it really matters because it’s totally different schemes that they’re doing, but certainly his input on personnel is helpful,” Durkin explained.
Pease thinks Phillips will be in a positive mindset on Saturday.
“He played there and obviously coached there. I think he’s got respect for the program because he’s an alumnus. I think he understands the kids and where they’re at, the ones he helped recruit. I’m sure we’d all be a little bit anxious if we were in that role to do that,” he said. “He’s not a person that’s mad about the situation. I think he enjoys being here. He’s excited to go back and coach there and I don’t think it’s any type of situation to be vengeful or anything like that.”
But senior wide receiver Solomon Patton, arguably the player that has made the greatest gains thus far thanks to Phillips’s tutelage, noticed a slight change in his position coach’s temperment this week.
“I can tell that he’s a little bit more on the edge as far as he wants to make sure we do everything right, which that’s understandable coming that he was there last year. He wants to perform at the top level with us going down to Kentucky,” he said.
Patton gives Phillips a lot of credit for his recent development.
After having totaled just 100 yards receiving in his first three years and never having caught a touchdown, he has progressed immensely, registering 212 receiving yards and two scores through three games this season.
“A huge impact,” Patton said of Phillips’s coaching. “We’re learning how to run our routes the right way and at the right depth. Just technique-wise and catching the ball, he’s made a huge impact.”
Added Muschamp: “I think he’s done an outstanding job. You look at three of our most productive players – Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Trey Burton – and some young players developing at the position that I’m pleased with.
“I think his production speaks for itself on the tape. Your tape is your resume as a coach. What you put on tape is who you are. I think he’s done a really good job. He’s been a good addition for our staff.”
Patton noted that Phillips does yell a lot but does so “in a real respectful way,” but one must wonder how he reacted when it was announced that freshman Demarcus Robinson was suspended last Saturday for a violation of team rules.
Excitement about Robinson has been sky high. Some called him Florida’s most important recruit of the 2013 cycle. Patton said Wednesday that the coaches and players love Robinson and have the utmost confidence in him. “Whenever his number’s called, I’m more than positive he’s going to catch the ball.”
Perhaps Saturday at Kentucky will be Robinson’s breakout game. Maybe it won’t be. Either way, Phillips appears to be in the process of turning around a unit that has been void of production for years.
The Gators’ newest assistant cannot to speak publicly before Saturday’s game, his excellent coaching and attention to detail may very well give his receivers the capability of doing all the talking necessary that evening.