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July 14, 2010ALSO: Rivals.com College Football Coaching Carousel
More than a few folks believe him.
In just more than six months as coach, Phillips has commitments from 14 prospects for the 2011 recruiting class. That includes highly regarded defensive back Glen Faulkner and defensive tackle Clint Tucker, both of East St. Louis (Ill.) High.
This time last year, the Wildcats had two commitments.
"This is exactly what we envisioned," Phillips said of the Wildcats' fast start. "We want to be a top-10 program, and to be a top-10 program, you've got to recruit.
"When I hire coaches, the No. 1 thing I ask is, 'Can he recruit?' Second is, 'How is he as a teacher?' Third, I want enthusiasm and passion for Kentucky. I've got to sell the coaches first. They have to have passion for the plan we have in place."
Phillips is a native of Franklin, Ky., a small town in the central part of the state just a few miles from the Tennessee border. He played at Kentucky and served faithfully as offensive coordinator under Rich Brooks.
Phillips definitely has a passion for Kentucky. But he's also convinced a Tennessee Volunteer to be passionate about the Wildcats. Anyone familiar with Tennessee's 25-year winning streak over Kentucky knows that's no small accomplishment.
Yet, Tee Martin, the quarterback of Tennessee's most recent national championship team, has bought in. He was one of three new assistants Phillips hired after replacing Brooks, who retired following Kentucky's fourth consecutive bowl appearance last season.
"What's happening is kids come to visit us and leave saying that they didn't know Kentucky was like that," Martin said. "With a few great recruiting classes, in a couple of years we can turn the tables in the SEC East."
Hey, passion is good. But let's slow down a bit.
Three Music City Bowl appearances in four years are nice, but they don't really stack up with the legacies of SEC East rivals Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Yet, Phillips boldly proclaims his goal is to build Kentucky into a consistent top-10 football program.
"We want to compete for the SEC East championship -- and that gives you the chance to compete on a national level," Phillips said during a break from a statewide tour to speak about his "Operation Win" plan. "We make no bones about it: We want to play for the national championship."
That three of the nation's 15 minority FBS head coaches are at programs in Kentucky is something Phillips thinks will help his cause. (The others: Charlie Strong at Louisville and Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky. Like Phillips, both are in their first season at those schools.)
"I see it as an advantage to have three African-American coaches," Phillips said. "That makes me proud of being a Kentuckian. It changes the perception of Kentucky.
"Maybe Kentucky had a perception that we wouldn't make those kinds of moves. You see it not only at UK, but you see the state a little differently."
Still, skeptics could find reasons to have doubts. Kentucky never has finished higher than third in the SEC East. The Wildcats haven't won an SEC championship since sharing the title with Georgia in 1976, and they needed a loss to Mississippi State overturned by forfeit to get that. Other than that, Kentucky hasn't won an SEC title since 1950, when Bear Bryant was coach.
Everyone knows the Wildcats play for national championships in basketball. They play second fiddle in football. Is it necessary to resurrect that story about legendary basketball coach Adolph Rupp receiving a Cadillac as reward for a great season, while Bryant received a cigarette lighter?
Besides, all new coaches begin their job with barnstorming speaking engagements across their states in which they talk of "changing the culture." They all set glorious goals with plans that have catchy titles. At Alabama, for instance, Nick Saban called it "the process." Three years later, "the process" produced a national championship. Yet, most coaches fall way short of such grandiose aspirations.
But Phillips is steadfast, perhaps stubborn, in his belief that Kentucky can be a serious contender in the SEC. He believes his "Operation Win," a relentless commitment to excellence in the classroom, in the community as model citizens and on the field, is the first step to making that happen.
"We've got to be persistent in selling our message," Phillips said. "The kids will continue to hear our message and hear it the same way from everybody that delivers it. We'll be winning in the classroom and in the community. We'll be model citizens, and make no bones about it, we'll win on the football field. We're not going to take a backseat to anyone."
You can't hope to beat SEC East powerhouses on the field if you back down on the recruiting trail. Phillips vows Kentucky won't be meek. He will aggressively recruit the state of Kentucky and target Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama, too.
"We want kids to have to tell us 'no,' " Phillips said. "And if we get a 'no,' that will give us a chance to go on to the next [recruit]. I tell our coaches, 'Go get the 'no.' "
So far, though, he has received a lot of yeses.
"When we first hit the road, the response was great," Martin said. "A lot of high school coaches and players have a great relationship with Joker. When I go to Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, I've been received well. I knew Kentucky recruited there, but I didn't know how deeply entrenched Joker was.
"You know, kids hear about big-name coaches, but sometimes the names get so big the kids don't feel comfortable. Joker's personality makes you feel comfortable and he's a players-type coach. It's not hard to sell Joker Phillips."
Martin said he sees similarities in Kentucky now and Tennessee before it surfaced as a national power in the mid-'90s.
The Volunteers had just three AP top-10 finishes from 1975-93. In '94, quarterback Peyton Manning joined the Vols. Several more top-flight recruits followed. Eventually, Martin led Tennessee to the '98 national championship.
"It's going to take a few major top guys to go to Kentucky," Martin said. "They will have to go to Kentucky and start it. ... It takes a few guys to jump in the boat first and pull other guys into the boat. We have 14 players committed already. Kentucky hasn't done that before. That shows the excitement kids have for our program and for Joker Phillips."
Phillips thinks that's an indicator that Kentucky can challenge in the East and emerge as a championship contender in the SEC.
"People think I'm blowing smoke, but I'm not," he said. "We want to win the Eastern side of this league. Last year we were one game away from second place. I feel we'll have a good opportunity as the future goes on."
Based on how Phillips has started his job, he's making a convincing argument.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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