LEXINGTON, Ky. – Joker Phillips once invited fans critical of his play calling to join him in the office at 5 a.m. the next day to talk it over.
On Wednesday, after the former offensive coordinator was formally introduced as head coach of his Kentucky alma mater, Phillips raised the stakes for any would-be second guessers.
"Probably going to be 4 o'clock now," he quipped.
It was a moment of levity in a news conference that also included some heavy emotion – much of it directed at Phillips' predecessor and mentor Rich Brooks. The former Wildcats coached announced at the same Commonwealth Stadium meeting room two days earlier that he was stepping down after seven years on the job.
Phillips, who was named as the head coach in waiting two years ago, choked up as he spoke of Brooks – who hired him in 2003 to lead the wide receivers and promoted him to other roles including coordinator and head coach of the offense.
"He has had a huge effect on me as a person and as a coach, and as I take the reins from him, I feel confident knowing that he has prepared me well," Phillips said. "I get the sense that people understand what Rich has done here, but I predict the appreciation for Rich will grow even greater as time goes by."
The hiring was also historically notable because Phillips becomes Kentucky's first Black head football coach and the second in the Southeastern Conference. First-year Black head coaches now lead all three of the state's Football Bowl Subdivision programs, with the offseason hirings of Charlie Strong by Louisville and Willie Taggart by Western Kentucky.
"I am an African-American hire, but I'll be a quick African-American fire too if we don't win," Phillips said.
UK football spokesman Tony Neely said Phillips signed a five-year contract for $1.7 million a year in salary, broadcasting commitments and endorsements. Other terms were not immediately disclosed.
Brooks, who attended Phillips' announcement Wednesday, has set the bar high for his successor, after leading the Wildcats to a program-first four consecutive bowl games and winning them all until falling to Clemson in the Music City Bowl last month.
Phillips says he wants to continue the upward climb and eventually compete for the Southeastern Conference title rather than just play competitive football.
"We are really, really close, but it's like climbing the ladder," Phillips said. "Those couple steps get tougher and tougher, similar to losing those last five pounds."
Phillips, a native of Franklin, Ky., said he had wanted for decades to eventually become coach of the Wildcats – a team he grew up following despite its lack of success at the time.
After getting his bachelor's degree in advertising from the school, he spent several years as an assistant, leading the wide receivers and helping with recruiting – considered one of his specialty areas. He then had brief stints with Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina before returning to the Wildcats in 2003 under Brooks.
"I thought he was prepared two years ago, and obviously the administration agreed as well," Brooks said. "The one thing he has going for him that I didn't is he's not an outside. I got a lot of that my first couple years. He's a Kentucky guy. He lives and dies the job."
Athletics director Mitch Barnhart, who tapped Phillips as the coach in waiting two years ago, said he was pleased Phillips was finally able to land his dream job after more than two decades working his way up the ranks.
"I know there are those moments when you shake your head and wonder, 'Will I ever get the chance?" Barnhart said. "I'm very glad the day has come for him to take the reins."
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