BY PERRY HUNTER
Just a few years ago, two African-American coaches were ushered into the University of Louisville — Charlie Strong — and the University of Kentucky — Joker Phillips — as their new football coaches.
Much was placed on their race, their friendship and their possible abilities to turn their programs around. From my understanding, both are very good men and good coaches. Since that ushering in, their paths have taken different routes.
Strong’s Cardinals are 9-0 with talk of a big-time bowl, and Phillips’ teams have struggled, none more so than this season at 1-9 and ultimately with his firing this past weekend by Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart.
It is amazing how two similar trajectories can suddenly take different tracks as the future plays out. Strong’s Cardinals have won many close games this season, where one or two plays could make their record much different than it is now. Phillips has had to deal with multiple injuries to his team forcing him to play a much younger team this season than what he wanted.
Really, with a couple of breaks either way, this could be playing out the complete opposite than it is now. If you are a sports fan, you can’t help but feel good for Strong and bad for Phillips. Both are good men as I stated before.
Within days of the March 2 tornado that hit Henryville, Strong and many of the Cardinal football players were in Henryville to assist. They donated “stuff,” but they donated something even more important — their time.
Strong has befriended many U of L fans in the area who were seriously injured and has stayed in contact with them. What Strong and the football team did will not be forgotten any time soon by many Henryville people, many who are not U of L fans.
Phillips, so far, has handled his firing by Barnhart with the utmost class.
Has Phillips made mistakes?
Maybe ... recruiting, game decisions ... maybe.
Has he made mistakes off the field? Maybe, I am not going to go into his personal life, but who hasn’t made mistakes? Who hasn’t made severe mistakes?
But Phillips’ comments after his firing are what make him a class act.
Phillips said in a written statement:
“We, as coaches, are measured on results. 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.
“I am very appreciative of Mitch Barnhart and [former Kentucky coach] Rich Brooks for providing the opportunity to have been the head coach here. Mitch is the best athletic director I’ve ever been associated with. He’s fair and honest and he’s ‘all in’ in terms of student-athletes’ well-being. Rich is the best mentor a young coach could ever have. I learned a lot from him in terms of plowing ahead. They are dear friends. [Past Kentucky president] Dr. Lee Todd and [current Kentucky president] Dr. Eli Capilouto have both been very supportive. I appreciate the Big Blue Nation and encourage the fans to stay behind their team going forward.
“I love our players and am proud to be associated with them. I expect them to continue the behavior we have asked of them academically, socially and with football. I’m thankful for the staff’s hard work, dedication, and what they have done in coaching and mentoring the players. I’d like to thank my wife and family for all their support and for being behind me 100 percent.”
I realize that he has to say these things to keep a good reputation and for further job opportunities, but I do believe him about Barnhart. I have heard Barnhart speak before, and he comes off as someone who does try to do the right thing. I do believe Barnhart when he says this is one of the hardest things he has had to do as UK AD.
So, where do they go from here?
Strong will finish off a great season and elite programs will come knocking, wanting him as their coach.
Phillips is fired and will be looking for a job, period.
How far they have come from that first year when they were so highly touted as new coaches. They both can use these experiences to help others if they desire to do so, which I believe they will do.
What it reinforces to me more than ever is that life is something that happens while you are busy preparing other plans.
Perry Hunter is a Henryville High School teacher and a former coach of the school’s boys’ basketball team. You can visit his blog at coachperryhunter.blogspot.com.