HOOVER, Ala. — Since taking over the Kentucky job in January, Joker Phillips has had only periodic conversations with his predecessor Rich Brooks, whose cell service doesn’t always cover the remote fishing holes of Oregon.
But the 68-year-old retiree has imparted several words of wisdom to Phillips, who, after 22 years as an assistant, finally has his first shot as a head coach.
“The best advice I got from Rich was, ‘Don’t listen to the noise,’ ” Phillips said. “The noise is you, the media, some of the fans. Just continue to go about your business, make sure you’ve got a sound plan and stick to your plans.”
Wednesday was Phillips’ grand entrance to the SEC stage at SEC Media Days. The coach took the dais not long after Alabama’s Nick Saban and just before Florida’s Urban Meyer.
“I’m truly living a dream,” the Kentucky alum and longtime assistant said.
The 47-year-old Phillips has some big shoes to fill. Although Brooks had a 39-47 record in seven years at Kentucky, he made football somewhat relevant in Big Blue basketball country. His teams made bowl games in each of his final four seasons, winning three of them.
“Coach Brooks laid a great foundation,” receiver/quarterback Randall Cobb said.
But Phillips was his top aide for most of that run, hired as a wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator in 2003 when Brooks first took the job and able to move up the coaching ranks, serving as offensive coordinator for four years and offensive head coach last season.
Despite his ties to Brooks, Phillips is cut from a different cloth. Brooks was laid back during practice, avuncular in nature. Phillips is on the go all the time, and he expects the same from his players.
“Our intensity is through the roof,” running back Derrick Locke said. “Our practices are shorter, but we have a lot more reps. Everything is boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So when we’re in the game, we’re used to that. It’s second nature.”
“It’s crazy,” defensive end DeQuin Evans said. “We end practice a lot earlier, but we get a lot more reps in.”
One of Phillips’ first moves was to introduce “Operation Win,” a multi-pronged plan to make the Wildcats competitive on the field and the classroom. If a player doesn’t want to buy in, Phillips has no problem letting him leave.
“I’m now making the hardcore decisions,” Phillips said. “When I say ‘hardcore decisions,’ before I had a lot of opinions, a lot of ideas. I used to sit in the staff room and give them. A lot of them didn’t matter. Now I’m having to be responsible for those.”
Phillips made sure the six assistants he hired during the offseason — including former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin to lead the wide receivers — were from the same mold. He wants them to have what he called “juice.”
“So many times I’ve been around coaches that don’t have that at the school they’re at,” he said. “I want guys with passion, energy and enthusiasm for the job we have here at Kentucky.”
That’s no problem for Joseph Phillips Jr., whose grandfather gave him the nickname Joker to distinguish him from his father, Joseph Sr.
Joker bleeds blue. He grew up in Franklin, Ky., was a receiver for the Wildcats from 1981-84 and has had two stints as a coach at his alma mater, getting his start there from 1988-96 and returning on Brooks’ staff.
It’s safe to say his Kentucky credentials are beyond reproach.
“He’s a Kentucky guy,” Evans said. “Everybody loves and respects him. It’s one thing to love a person, but to respect him, that’s something that you have to earn.”