Winning and losing football games is one thing. Life is another.
That’s the message Kentucky coach Joker Phillips has been preaching to his team since receiving a text from a former unidentified player battling liver and lung cancer last week. The players are trying to salvage their season, while Phillips is battling to save his job. Somewhere, a friend of Phillips is trying to save his life.
Kentucky’s battle this year has been an inability to win football games. Unless the Wildcat close out the current campaign with six straight victories, they will miss the postseason for a second consecutive season following five straight bowl appearances. The Cats have been on a downward slide since the second week of the season, most of which can be attributed to one of the toughest schedules in the nation, not to mention a barrage of injuries that have mounted over the past month.
The Wildcats will take a five-game losing streak into Saturday’s contest against Georgia following last week’s three-quarter 49-7 setback at Arkansas. In the wake of the team’s struggles, Phillips hasn’t noticed a difference in his team’s approach on the field when it comes to not quitting.
“It might look like the common folk, that they are not giving effort, but if you watched the two long touchdown passes (against Arkansas), Cody Quinn is straining, busting his tail from the back side,” he said. “I think our guys are giving us great effort. We have to do a better job of executing.”
The fans are frustrated and the lack of enthusiasm has carried over into the stands at Commonwealth Stadium.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart will have a decision to make at the end of the season, considering he has a history of not making coaching changes in the middle of the year.
That could prove to be an uneasy decision for Barnhart to make. Beyond the athletics director and coach relationship, Phillips and Barnhart share a friendship beyond the field, one that the Kentucky coach embraces.
“We’re friends, and that’s more important to me than anything on the business side,” Phillips said Monday. “We are friends. and I can tell you this: There’s not a lot of people out there (coaches and administrators) that can say they are friends. There’s not a lot. One of the things I do cherish and appreciate is our friendship.”
Until the end of the season, Phillips will take the same “pray and fight” approach his friend has adopted in his struggle against cancer.
“Do you think we teach these guys to lose?,” he said. “We teach the guys to fight with everything that comes up in their lives. It’s not just football.”