In part two of Cats Illustrated's exclusive interview with Joker Phillips, the Kentucky football coach discussed negativity surrounding the program, his recent trip to Ethiopia, facility upgrades, and more.
For part one of the interview, check here.
Cats Illustrated: Steve Spurrier floated the idea of divisional records to decide who should play in the SEC championship game. What do you think about that?
Joker Phillips: We're all in the SEC. Why shouldn't the SEC record determine it? Everybody is playing the same amount of SEC games, the SEC record should determine it. That's my opinion.
Cats Illustrated note: Spurrier's idea never gained much support during the league meetings and was not voted on.
Cats Illustrated: Do you have any opinion on where you'd like the scheduling to fall, whether it's the 6-1-1 model or something else?
Joker Phillips: I like the 6-1-1 model, because that's where we're at. If we decide having a common opponent and then rotating the other one, that works for me.
Cats Illustrated note: The league ultimately approved the 6-1-1 scheduling model. For a breakdown, check here.
Cats Illustrated: Is that because you like the Mississippi State game, or do you just like the way things have gone?
Joker Phillips: I just like the way things have gone. We've had some common opponents, you don't always have to prepare for two opponents that you don't see year-in and year-out.
Cats Illustrated: That new renovation you have at the Nutter Training Facility, is it nice to have a fresher look around now?
Joker Phillips: You know what, it is. We got the majority of it finished this past week. We were trying to get it done before the camps and we also were trying to get it done so when the players come back, it's a wow factor for those guys that are already on our football team. Some of them have seen it, but the majority haven't seen what's going on. I know the kids that went to Ethiopia with me, they got to see a couple pictures of it and when they got back, I got texts from those guys about how excited they were about what we had so far.
Cats Illustrated: How was Ethiopia?
Joker Phillips: Good. It's life-changing. We had a chance to take three players this year. Larry Warford, Matt Smith and Mikie Benton, all three of whom have done some unbelievable work with the kids, delivering beds or serving food to the less fortunate. It's amazing, watching those guys do the work that they did.
Cats Illustrated: You did it last year as well. Is it something new every year, or is it just kind of different because of the guys you go with?
Joker Phillips: What makes it different is the guys you go with. I thought, I went the one time, maybe I should send someone else, but then you miss out on seeing the reaction in the players' eyes and in their body language. It changes each unique individual. We enjoy it. We got to take some quality guys this year that should be leaders for our football team.
Cats Illustrated: This is the time of year when preseason magazines come out. Do you try to get your guys to ignore that stuff or is it bulletin board material?
Joker Phillips: You can't get them to ignore it. They're going to pick it up. They want to see their name in there and some of them will. Unfortunately, there are some negative things in there also. If you're a college football player, you have to be able to handle the negative. If you're a college football coach, you have to be able to handle the negative stuff also. We'll just go to work as usual and continue to work as hard as we possibly can and get this thing right.
Cats Illustrated: Did you feel like the guys handled the negative well last year?
Joker Phillips: I think they did. It would have been easy for them to fold up their tent and get ready for the next season after the Vanderbilt game (when UK was eliminated from bowl contention) but I thought our guys responded and played maybe the best we've played. One of them was a win. We played a really good Georgia team and just didn't make as many plays as they did. I'm proud of the way those guys finished the season. It would have been easy for those guys to lay down, and I think a lot of people expected them to lay down. But they didn't.
Cats Illustrated: When you talk about all the negative stuff, does some of the negative portion of the fanbase frustrate you?
Joker Phillips: I get it. I've been around this program for 30-something years and I was on the worst team, 0-10-1. We've come a long way where the expectations are different. There wasn't much negative then because a lot of people didn't care. I really care about what's going on here football-wise.
Cats Illustrated: And it's even a lot different now than when you came back here as an assistant 10 years ago, isn't it?
Joker Phillips: Well, we took over a team that was 7-5, so when we went back the other way a little beat, people were expecting us to go at least 7-5. We didn't, but I think in the long haul, I think those first three seasons set us up for the next five seasons and going to five straight bowl games.
Cats Illustrated: Do you see a core group among players now like you had at that time?
Joker Phillips: I do. And I saw them making plays last year. You see Bud Dupree, Eric Dixon, Josh Clemons, Ashely Lowery, a lot of them made plays. We've got a chance to be a big-time team here for a long time.
Cats Illustrated: When you get back into summer workouts, is there anything you'll focus more on, whether it's strength or speed?
Joker Phillips: I think last winter, we tried to focus more on strength training. We didn't run the big guys as much. We ran the skill guys a lot more than the big guys. I think this summer, we'll focus more on strength and conditioning. We didn't have to get ready and condition in the spring. You just worry about trying to get your strength up.
Cats Illustrated: You talked about Danny Trevathan in the last offseason as a guy you needed to step up vocally. Any guys like that this year, or are most of them already there?
Joker Phillips: Well, we've been working with Tay Neloms on being the type of leader we need him to be. He has, I think, more leadership qualities than anybody we've had around here. He's not afraid to step up and challenge the other kids. But the thing is, we need him to carry himself like a leader. Two years ago, Martavius Neloms responded to a shove on the field and threw a punch. This year if something like that happens, I think he'd be the first guy who throws his hands up and runs back to the huddle. That's how far he's come. We expect him to be that type of leader for us. That shows a lot of leadership qualities for us when a guy can build off something that's happened to him in the past. We've tried to put him in those situations in practice also, where something bad happens to see how he's going to respond. He's responded in the right way.
Cats Illustrated: Calipari has talked about between his first and second year, the second year was different because he had a bunch of returning players. Even though those guys didn't play a ton, they still knew the system and really helped in practice. Do you see that with the guys in Minter's system?
Joker Phillips: Yes, especially on defense, yes. Playing those young kids last year, they line up in the SEC in a system and we're now practicing in that same system in the spring and now have a chance to go through the fall in the same system. I think that's really helpful for those young kids.
Cats Illustrated: Do you think there's a chance that even though you lose a bunch of starters from that team, the execution could be better?
Joker Phillips: We're hoping so. You lose a couple of linebackers, but I think the experience we have up front allows those linebackers to not take on as much of a load. I think our guys up front are more experience and will allow our linebackers to run around and make plays. The thing that will help our linebackers is our front guys.
Cats Illustrated: Whenever we talk to Mitch, we ask what his wish list would be for the whole department. If you had a wish list for new facilities and whatnot, what's at the top of the list?
Joker Phillips: Of the things we've done, we've done things inside that players see day-to-day. I think that's really important that our players see that. It hasn't been as important for the fans to see changes in our facilities. Our new fields - nobody really knows we have new fields. Then we bring an old player in from the past and start showing him our facilities and all they talk about is 'Man, these fields are nice. I wish I had a chance to play on those.' That is big to me, bigger than having a stadium, having a new recruiting room. You know what that does? It says we're worried about our players' safety, having the fields that weren't quite as safe for our players.
Our new locker room, you bring an ex-player in who wasn't able to be in that locker room, he rants and raves about the new locker rooms and how he wishes they had this. They don't talk about stadiums, they talk about what's done to benefit the players on a day-to-day basis. The things we've done inside Nutter, that we're doing now, you'll see some of the ex-players and history of Kentucky football. I think that's big, when ex-players come back they see that. Our present players say 'I want to be up on this wall. I want to be a part of this tradition also.' Those things are more important to me than trying to all of a sudden get a new stadium or a new recruiting room. These things we've done are very important to our folks in the program.
Cats Illustrated: So there's nothing really big you'd like to see done?
Joker Phillips: There's a couple things, yes. But I think those things have been the most important things. We'd like to have a new stadium, we'd like to have a new recruiting room. But these things that we're doing are the things that I'd like to see done first.
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