LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Long before Americans heard the kind of concession speeches they're used to hearing on Election Day, departing University of Kentucky coach Joker Phillips delivered probably the most gracious one of the bunch.
Initially, Phillips didn't want to coach the season's final two games after being fired on Sunday.
"I don't want an open casket," Phillips said, demonstrating in a Tuesday gathering with reporters why the media around here will miss him probably more than UK fans will. "I don't want to be somebody's centerpiece."
But Phillips bucked that urge for two good reasons. First, he did it for the UK players, who wanted him to stay and asked him to stay.
"Me and those guys, I've sat in their homes and told them – this was one of my selling points – I wanted to watch them grow up," Phillips said. "I don't know how many coaches say that, I want to watch you grow up. I heard that from them and that's the reason I want to be back (for the final games). 'Coach, you said you wanted to watch us grow up.' That's the reason why I'm doing it and the only reason."
Whenever these situations occur, the players become the forgotten men, which is a shame, because they're the ones this is supposed to be about. But even though Phillips said they were the only reason, there's another good reason for Phillips to coach a couple more games -- himself.
Phillips' coaching career is not done. He talked in terms of himself becoming a fan and buying season tickets and cheering like some kind of retiree in Commonwealth Stadium. Goodness knows, he can probably afford to do it. But don't believe it.
He said he would take some time off, but expect Phillips to be back in coaching quickly. He'll have some options on NFL staffs. Brian Kelly at Notre Dame has been said to be interested. And down the road Phillips will have other head coaching opportunities.
Understand this -- at UK Phillips was trying to do two of the hardest things you can do. He was coaching at his alma mater (where you're never quite given the deference that an outsider is given). For instance, UK's next coach likely will be able to demand, and get, upgrades and concessions that Phillips never could have gotten. The other difficult thing was that Phillips was coaching in the SEC. Add in the factors that he was coming out of a coach-in-waiting arrangement and that he was in his first head coaching job and the situation is even more difficult.
I'm not saying the deck was stacked against Phillips. I'm saying the degree of difficulty was very high. The UK coaching job, and this should be clear looking backward and forward, is not an entry-level position. You can do some good coaching in that situation, in that league, and still lose a lot of football games.
Phillips made some mistakes. His failures are his own, but there are mitigating circumstances. His final grade as a head coach shouldn't be determined solely on his first job. Given another chance, somewhere away from this place where so much of his life is tied up, the outcome could be different.
And if, over these last two games, Phillips can inspire his team to play with passion and effort when there is nothing more than pride on the line, it will speak volumes about his ability to connect with his young players, even in this difficult circumstance.
In the meantime, Phillips response to the most difficult job challenge you can have -- being fired -- was about as gracious as anyone could muster. He accepted it. Faced it. And if you're on his team, or have watched him or covered him, you have to respect him for that. In fact, having spoken directly to the public, Phillips has handled the situation better than athletic director Mitch Barnhart.
"I promise you when I walked out there in that stadium Saturday (to a smattering of fans before a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt in Commonwealth Stadium), that was enough for me," Phillips said. ". . . I understand it. We didn't get the necessary results and I understand that. I'm very appreciative of Mitch. I'm not bitter by any means. I appreciate the opportunity. I got a chance to grow up here. I got a chance to get even stronger by coming back."
Then Phillips left a message for fans, including those conspicuous by their absence for most of the season.
"The thing I'd tell Big Blue Nation is I'm part of you," he said. "I will continue to buy my season tickets. I won't buy as many but I'll continue to buy my season tickets. We all have a hand if we want this thing to succeed, we all do. We all do. It's not moaning and groaning when we don't get the results, when the next guy doesn't get the results as fast as we want, it's staying behind the players and coaches. Stand behind them. I'll stand behind them. I'll be rooting like heck for them."
That's a message everyone around UK should be able to approve. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Phillips came in classy and went out the same way. Those things will be a credit to him down the road, wherever that road leads.