LEXINGTON, Ky. — Joker Phillips regrets he won’t see firsthand what his young Kentucky squad will look like next season.
The outgoing Wildcats coach spoke Tuesday for the first time since Kentucky fired him. He said he had stressed to his staff the need for the team to show improvement and get to ’13, “because I thought ’13 would be the year we have an opportunity to make a huge move.”
It didn’t happen. He was fired Sunday effective at the end of season.
But after the 49-year-old Phillips initially resisted the option to coach the last two games after this week’s bye, players urged him to finish out the season and get a glimpse of what might have been in 2013.
Kentucky (1-9, 0-8 Southeastern Conference) hosts Samford next and then plays at Tennessee.
“It was hard because I didn’t want to be a distraction,” Phillips said of his decision to return. “I want it to be about those seniors. I sat in many of those guys’ homes and told them I wanted them. I wanted to watch them grow up. I heard that from them, and that’s the reason why I’m back.”
Phillips is 12-23 overall in his third season with the Wildcats. The end came after Saturday’s 40-0 home loss to Vanderbilt, Kentucky’s worst to the Commodores in 96 years.
The coach said he wasn’t shocked or hurt by Barnhart’s decision.
“I understand this,” he said. “We didn’t get the necessary results. I understand that. I’m very appreciative of Mitch. I’m not bitter by any means, I appreciate the opportunity.”
Though Phillips took responsibility for Kentucky’s record, he reiterated his belief that injuries set the team back in many areas. The injuries have forced the Wildcats to use 46 underclassmen including 26 freshmen against opponents with a combined record of 66-24 (.773).
Phillips said his hope was getting to next season and seeing if growth resulted from this year’s struggles. That prospect became more difficult behind a string of blowout losses, including the last two games by a 73-10 margin.
He said the offense started the season well — before the injuries.
“In the first three games we showed improvement offensively and it’s hard not to notice that,” Phillips said. “We made improvements on special teams and when we started showing improvement defensively, the injuries hit. And then it hit special teams. When (sophomore quarterback) Max (Smith) goes out, we go the other way offensively.
“Therefore, you don’t get a chance to continue what you hope to do.