It's never a good idea to compare basketball and football at Kentucky. Someone always seems to get hurt.
Kentucky basketball is a national program; Kentucky football is still trying to be a factor in the SEC East.
|New Kentucky coach Joker Phillips: 'We have a strong foundation. Great character kids.' (US Presswire)|
Coach Cal does telethons for Haiti; Phillips probably contributed.
That doesn't mean the two programs don't co-exist. Calipari invited Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to a game last month and seated him next to Phillips in Rupp Arena.
"Mike Tomlin and I have been friends for a long time," Phillips said. "Cal didn't know that."
Now if some of that Cal/Steelers magic would rub off on the football program. The Wildcats enter an era with Phillips, a native son and former player and coach, taking over for Rich Brooks. It was Brooks' goal to make Kentucky a regular top 25 program before he left. The Wildcats didn't quite get there but Brooks did raise the profile, getting the program to four consecutive bowls before he stepped down in January.
Kentucky football is better than when Brooks found it in 2003 but it is also changing. Known as a master recruiter, Phillips eased into his first head coaching job after serving a coach-in-waiting apprenticeship under Brooks. There are more uncomfortable transitions. Phillips has been a Wildcat since 1981, having spent 21 years as a player and coach.
This is where the elegance of Kentucky basketball diverges from football. Phillips found out about his promotion in a bathroom. That's called a tease, folks. You'll have to read the following Q&A with Phillips to find out about that story plus how he believes Florida is vulnerable, why Tim Tebow is a "goon" and the coach's reaction to becoming the SEC's second African-American head football coach.
CBSSports.com: What kind of shape did Rich Brooks leave the program in?
Phillips: "He left it in great shape. We have a strong foundation. Great character kids. We're leaving as winners."
CBS: What's the next step for Kentucky football?
"We continue to climb the ladder. We got to try to find the big boys now. We've climbed about halfway through the ladder. The next step is to climb the Tennessees, the Floridas, the South Carolinas, which we haven't beaten in a while. That's the hard part."
(Note: Hal Mumme was the last Kentucky coach to beat South Carolina, in 1999.)
CBS: Do you sense an opening at Florida with Urban Meyer's status up in the air?
Phillips: "Obviously, Florida won't be the same. They had a goon playing at quarterback. Usually the goon is the offensive or defensive lineman. They've had a goon at quarterback. That guy is a great leader.
"He could play anywhere. He's a coach on the field. He's one of those guys who rarely comes around. Now with him being gone you hope that they take a step back. They will, definitely, in leadership.
CBS: How did you enjoy this coach-in-waiting thing?
"I had no idea it would happen [when it did, January 2008]. Rich just said it wouldn't be long. It's been one of those experiences where you say take it all in and enjoy it. I had a great job [offensive coordinator]. Rich is one of those guys that everyone loves to work for. If it was uncomfortable environment, I would have been anxious. It was a fun environment."
CBS:As the first African-American head football coach at Kentucky, second in the SEC, what does that mean to you?
Phillips: It means a lot to me because Kentucky was one of the first to have an African-American player. We had Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg [the third and fourth African-American players to sign with Kentucky]. Wilbur Hackett comes back, he's an SEC official. Getting to know Houston Hogg meant more to me because he had been away for a long time.
"There had been some animosity between him and the university ... Those guys were pioneers. For me to lead this program forward, it means the world to me representing them."
(Note: Hackett was inducted into the Kentucky Hall of Fame in October. Hogg, who had stayed away from Wildcats games for years, came back to see the ceremony.)
CBS: How does the fact that the SEC is winning all these national championships help Kentucky?
Phillips: "I've been selling the SEC since I walked on campus in 1981 as a player. I will continue to sell the SEC. I was rooting as hard as I possibly could for Alabama. I think that is huge for us as a conference."
CBS: The basketball program has to help, right?
"I'm one of those guys who feeds off the basketball program. Coach Cal and I work real well together. He's a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and he had Mike Tomlin at the game. Coach Cal called and said, 'I've got tickets for you right next to Mike Tomlin.'
"Our battle cry this year has been 'Operation Win.' We definitely got to win in recruiting battles. The same things Cal stands for is the same thing we stand for."
CBS: How did you find out you would be the next coach at Kentucky?
"We were in Houston during an All-Star Game. We were in the bathroom. My wife and his wife were outside. Rich says, 'You know you're going to be the next head coach at Kentucky.'
"I said, 'Oh really.
"'One thing I know, Rich. I understand this business. We've got to continue to win.'
"Rich says, 'Yeah, but, I'm going to recommend that you become the next head coach at Kentucky.'
"That's when it first hit me."
CBS: What has held Kentucky back in the past, and why can it make the next step now?
"I think recruiting has changed ... We have closed the gap. We have to continue to close the gap over those who continue to beat us consistently."
CBS: Why are you so successful as a recruiter in Georgia?
Phillips: "If you look geographically in the SEC, what's the closest area to Kentucky -- with players? Tennessee has been good to us. Georgia has been good to us. South Carolina has been good to us.
"Now we have to make Florida good to us. The other area that we're close enough to ... is Cincinnati. We've got to treat Cincinnati like it's in-state. I'm not sure we've done a good enough job in the city of Cincinnati."
(Note: Phillips recently hired Tee Martin from New Mexico to coach receivers. The former Tennessee quarterback is seen as a rising star in coaching, having made an impact working elite quarterback camps.)
CBS: Did former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly kind of make that a destination recruiting spot?
Phillips: Yes, he did. But we kind of gave up -- I shouldn't say gave up -- we kind of eased up on Cincinnati. It's an hour from us. It's a big huge alumni area for us. We've got to own Cincinnati."