The Wayne County Outlook

Local Sports

November 29, 2011

Win over Vols boosts Phillips' popularity

11-30-11 —     Joker Phillips is now a more popular football coach than he was prior to last Saturday afternoon's Kentucky-Tennessee matchup.

    He did something that several of his predecessors couldn't do in the previous 26 seasons.  That's beating the Vols.

    Bill Curry couldn't stop Tennessee.

    Hal Mumme couldn't stop Tennessee.

    Guy Morriss couldn't stop Tennessee.

    Rich Brooks couldn't stop Tennessee.

    After dropping 24-14 to UT in Knoxville last year in his first year as UK's pigskin boss, Phillips got another chance this past weekend to make history.

    And the embattled coach did it with the help of stinging defense and Matt Roark's heroics as the fired-up Wildcats—minus its top two QBs— stunned Derek Dooley's UT club 10-7 in a windy contest featuring two of SEC's weakest teams.

    "What an amazing game!" said a pleased Phillips, who saw his team, a 7.5-point underdog, knocked the 5-7 Vols out of the bowl picture, finishing on a high note in a disappointing bowl-less campaign with a

5-7 mark.

    "They played a lot more inspired football than we did," admitted Dooley, a former Nick Saban assistant.

    Since Wildcats were not eligible for a post-season trip for the first time since 2005, the team treated Saturday's rivalry showdown as a bowl game.

    "I'm sure the seniors are taking it as a bowl game," said Phillips prior to the UT contest. "It's the last game that many of them will play, put on a uniform, period, will ever play football."

    Senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed of Kentucky added after the emotional game, "The seniors wanted to go out with a win and the younger guys wanted to help us leave with a win. It was something everybody wanted to do. We knew we needed to do it. We wanted to stop them from going to a bowl. We stepped up and played a great game."

    Ironically, both Phillips and Dooley are now sporting an identical two-year coaching record of 11-14 at their respective schools.

    While Dooley's seat is now getting warmed up (after finishing last in the SEC Eastern Division with a 1-7 mark and losing a golden opportunity for a post-season bowl), Phillips is seeing his once-hot seat getting  cooler.

    It was basically the other way around before last Saturday with rumors flying everywhere about Joker's job.  What a twist of turns!  

Strange world, huh?

    Needless to say, going into their third year, both coaches have a lot of work to do to keep their restless and demanding fans happy.

    Kentucky is scheduled to kick off its 2012 campaign at Louisville, while Tennessee opens against N.C. State in Atlanta.

    Veteran UK football publicist Tony Neely has seen numerous exciting games during his career.

    "There have been nine wins during my 18 seasons at Kentucky, which I would describe as the ultimate in emotion but each for its own reason," said Neely.

    And that includes Kentucky's three-point victory over Tennessee, ranking high on his personal list of memorable games.

    "For me, I think this win had more pure joy than any other event— football, basketball, anything—in  my 34 years of college athletics, given the combination of circumstances leading up to and surrounding the game," said Neely, who also worked at Vanderbilt before coming to Kentucky many years ago. "I don't think I've ever seen a happier group of players after a game."

    His list also has UK's 2007 victory over top-ranked LSU in Lexington.

    "(That was) the excitement of knowing that Kentucky could field a team that, on a given night, could do toe-to-toe and defeat any team in the country," he said.

    Another contest on Neely's list of "emotional" UK games is the first Governor's Cup matchup against Louisville in 1994.

    Neely added, "There was so much intensity brought to that game after not having played Louisville in 72 years."

    Just hours after wide receiver Matt Roark quarterbacked the Wildcats to a huge season-ending victory in an emergency role, he showed up at Rupp Arena.

    During UK's 87-63 victory over Portland in a college basketball matchup, a sellout crowd of 24,179 gave a rousing ovation when Roark was introduced on the hardwood floor during a second-half timeout and formed a "Y."

    It was perhaps the highlight of the night, which saw the (now

top-ranked) Cats somewhat sluggish at times despite winning by 24 points.

    Kentucky's new Big Man On Campus (BMOC) was often approached by the Wildcat fans as they had their pictures taken with him.

    As a three-star recruit from North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Ga.  

(near Atlanta), Roark came to UK as a quarterback in 2008. But he was moved to wide receiver and saw immediate action as a true freshman.

    And his first collegiate start, interestingly, came against Tennessee during his freshman year as the Vols stopped UK 28-10 in Knoxville.

    Fast forward to Nov. 26, 2011. Roark earned his first UK start at QB and it came against Tennessee, too.

    "I never expected to do anything like that. Not the part of beating Tennessee, but the me quarterbacking part," said Roark, whose grandparents live in Hazard, Ky.

    A 6-5, 214-pound senior, Roark said he was not intimidated. Entering the Tennessee game, he was the team's second-leading receiver with

349 yards in 36 receptions.

    "I felt really comfortable out there," he said.

    Senior punter Ryan Tydlacka said the team didn't have much of a choice with regular quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith injured.

    "We didn't have anyone else. What else could we really do?" said Tydlacka, who had an excellent punting game, often giving the Vols a poor field position. "We were all happy that he (Roark) pulled it out."

    In case you missed it, moments after his roundball Wildcats rolled past Portland, the first thing coach John Calipari mentioned in the post-game news conference was the football team's memorable performance.

    "That may go down as one of the greatest wins in the history of our athletic department," said Calipari.

    "My hat's off to that team and their staff and Joker.  Matt Roark, I've got to go hug this guy, rub up against him. That's unbelievable....I'm just happy."

    And we certainly hope Coach Cal will be happy, too, after this week's Rupp Arena showdowns with St. John's and North Carolina.

    Jamie H. Vaught, whose syndicated sports column currently appears in Kentucky newspapers, is the author of four books about UK basketball.  

He is

currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at jamiehv22@gmail.com.

   

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