Joker Phillips eager to take next step

Joker Phillips opened his first game-week SEC teleconference as Kentucky’s head coach Wednesday raving about his team’s attitude.

That’s fitting, because it’s Phillips’ attitude that most people who really know him point to as one of the main reasons he’ll be successful in maintaining what Rich Brooks built at Kentucky and maybe even taking it another step or two.

“He keeps it real, and there are never any excuses with Coach Phillips,” Kentucky junior receiver Randall Cobb said. “He’s been very clear about what his goals are for this program, and we’re all on the same page.

“There’s definitely another level for this program, and we’re working every day to get there.”

Phillips has branded his vision for getting there as “Operation Win.”

Needless to say, a win this Saturday against in-state rival Louisville would go a long way toward getting Phillips’ new regime off to a good start.

The Wildcats have won three straight in this series. That’s after losing four in a row when Brooks first arrived.

Already, Phillips has generated a lot of momentum on the recruiting trail. The Wildcats have commitments from three of the state’s top four prospects. A win over the Cardinals would only underscore to recruits in that state and elsewhere that Phillips is serious about making Kentucky a serious contender in the SEC.

That’s not going to happen overnight. Even with all that Brooks accomplished at Kentucky, the Wildcats were just 16-40 in the SEC and never finished with a winning record in the league.

There were certainly gains, in particular road wins at Auburn and Georgia, and the four consecutive bowl appearances. The talent and depth on defense also got better.

And that’s precisely the area where Phillips feels best about this team, not only for this season, but on down the road.

One of his goals for this preseason was to have an extremely physical camp, to see how guys responded. He’s encouraged by what he saw from a speed, athleticism and overall strength standpoint in the defensive front.

“We’re a lot faster than we’ve been in the past few years,” Phillips said. “We’ve got a lot more team speed on defense. We’ve got a lot more defensive linemen in the program. Usually programs like ours struggle to find those guys, because they’re so hard to come by. But we’ve gone out and been able to attract a lot of defensive linemen. We have been one of the few teams in the last two years in this league to put three guys in the NFL up front. That’s been one of our strong points, getting defensive linemen here at Kentucky.

“I just think this team will be a lot faster and have more depth than we’ve had in a long time here.”

Phillips has downplayed the fact that he’s only the second black head football coach in SEC history.

With close friend Charlie Strong being on the other sideline Saturday and making his head coaching debut as well, Phillips understands the significance of two black head coaches squaring off against each other, especially when there are only five in the BCS ranks.

There’s absolutely a sense of pride for Phillips in helping to break down some of the barriers that prevented black coaches before him from landing head jobs in this league.

There's also a sense of pride in being able to do it at a place he calls home.

“That’s exciting [to be Kentucky's first black head football coach], but it’s more important being the head coach at Kentucky, a place that I grew up loving,” Phillips said. “Being from Kentucky, being an alumnus, being a letterman, it’s a dream come true.

“To me, it gives every little kid in Kentucky -- black, white, green -- a chance to be the coach here some day.”