By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
People saw it coming, especially after Saturday’s 40-0 home loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The University of Kentucky administration relieved Wildcat head football coach Joker Phillips of his duties Sunday. Phillips, 49, has a 12-23 record as head coach in his third season after taking over for Rich Brooks in 2009. Phillips led Kentucky to its school-record fifth straight bowl game in 2010.
But the Wildcats struggled to 5-7 last year and are 1-9 this year and 0-7 in Southeastern Conference action. Kentucky could finish winless in conference play for the first time in school history if it does not win at Tennessee on Nov. 24.
“I have determined that it is in the best interest of our athletics program to make a change in our football coaching staff effective at the conclusion of the season,” said Mitch Barnhart, UK Director of Athletics, in an open letter. “I do so with a heavy heart for a man who has served his alma mater for almost 22 years as a player and a coach. Joker Phillips has carried the banner for the Blue and White with honor and pride. I have enjoyed working alongside him and am thankful for his friendship for the last decade.”
That means 2012 Highlands graduates Patrick Towles and Austin “Ozzie” Sheehan will have new coaches in 2013. Towles has stated on his Twitter account and to the UK press that he wants to stay in Lexington.
Sheehan and Towles were reached via text messages Sunday about the firing. But both responded saying they are not allowed to comment on the situation.
Towles and Sheehan played big roles in leading Highlands to four state championships. Towles was Kentucky Mr. Football in 2011. The duo lost twice in their four years of high school.
“We, as coaches, are measured on results,” Phillips said in a statement. “We didn’t get the results we had worked and hoped for. Therefore, change is needed. In my current 10-year stay at Kentucky, we’ve had some memorable moments as an assistant, coordinator and head coach. We’ve had the opportunity to coach some fine young men and I am grateful to have had the privilege of watching them grow as players, as students and as people.”
But their high school co-head coach Dale Mueller said they’ve faced adversity before. Towles comes from a long line of police officers, including his father Terry. Towles is the grandson of Hall of Fame pitcher and U.S. Senator Jim Bunning. Towles’ uncle, Jim Bunning Jr., played football at Indiana University.
“In reality, teams don’t win on average 50 percent of their games,” Mueller said. “If they’ve won 95 percent here, they’re going to go someplace and maybe win five percent. It happens. That’s the reason why we like to play teams on our schedule that are tough. We think battling through adversity helps you. Even though we’ve won a lot of games, it’s challenging being a Highlands football player. I think Patrick and Ozzie were prepared for that.”
Fans in Fort Thomas wanted Towles to see playing time behind center for Kentucky. They received the wish because of quarterback injuries and Towles gave the Wildcats some hope in the game against ranked Mississippi State. He completed 5-of-6 passes for 71 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown pass to La’Rod King in the second quarter before leaving with an injury.
But since returning, Towles has struggled splitting time at quarterback with Jalen Whitlow. Towles has completed 14-of-33 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. The Wildcats have struggled with injuries and dropped passes this season.
Sheehan walked on as a wide receiver. He dressed on Saturday against Vanderbilt.
They’re not the first Highlands graduates to experience adversity at Kentucky. Former Bluebird great Jared Lorenzen graduated in 1999 and played for three different head coaches in Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss and Brooks. The Wildcats finished 7-5 in 2002, but could not go to a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.
Kentucky has the week off before finishing out the season at home against Samford on Nov. 17 and at Tennessee on Nov. 24. The Wildcats have a chance to send Phillips out on a high note.