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November 17, 2012
There was a tap on Joker Phillips' shoulder.
Larry Warford and Matt Smith were behind him. The UK band, in the midst of 'My Old Kentucky Home,' drowned out what Phillips' players said to him.
Phillips knew what was coming. He tried to escape. He wanted to run off the field like he had so many times before.
"Oh, come on guys, no," he pleaded.
He was no match. Warford grabbed his left leg. Smith grabbed his right. He was rising into the air and onto their shoulders. Joker Phillips didn't get to run off the field at Commonwealth Stadium one last time. He was being carried.
"We were going to force him to get up on our shoulders," Warford said. "That's what he means to us. He's so important in our hearts. He loves this program so much. He breathes this. He bleeds it. He's a champion."
Kentucky (2-9, 0-7 Southeastern Conference) said goodbye to 19 seniors on Saturday, but it also said goodbye to a coach who had been involved with the program for 23 seasons as a player, assistant and head coach. Phillips left the field after the Wildcats' 34-3 win over Samford with help from players he'd helped recruit from the program he'd spent most of his life as a part of.
Late in the fourth quarter, Warford and Smith took the field final last time. They played one down before Phillips pulled them, giving the Commonwealth Stadium crowd a chance to applaud them as they ran off.
Little used reserves like Trevino Woods and Steven Duff came in for their moment. When it became apparent UK's defense wouldn't see the field again, walk-on cornerback Kristofer O'Bryant came on to play as a wide receiver. He hadn't played all season, but Phillips made sure he reached the field.
"We care about (Phillips)," senior wide receiver La'Rod King said. "And he cares about us. If you give to us, we'll give it back to you."
Saturday was the final home game for Phillips after returning to Kentucky 10 years ago as wide receivers coach under then head coach Rich Brooks. He slowly rose through the program, ascending to offensive coordinator before being named head coach in waiting after the 2007 season and taking over the helm of the program in 2010. But he was fired on Nov. 4 after falling to 12-23 in three seasons, agreeing to coach out the remainder of the season.
Phillips talked about rallying the team behind the seniors before their final home game. After, his seniors talked about rallying behind him.
"He's put so much into this program," Smith said. "He's the reason I was here. For him to be here with me for five years and know he's going out with me, we just wanted to take him out the right way."
UK scored touchdowns on its first two drives to take a 14-0 lead as Samford never threatened. The Wildcats were up 31-3 at halftime after defensive tackle Tristian Johnson returned a fumble 25 yards for a touchdown and cruised from there. Four UK players had more than 50 yards rushing as the Wildcats finished with 342 yards on the ground. Samford finished with minus-2 rushing yards.
Kentucky spent most of the second half showcasing its seniors and breaking out gadget packages. Warford, who is listed at 343 pounds, lined up at fullback. Left tackle Darrian Miller caught a lateral after lining up as a tight end. Senior quarterback Morgan Newton saw extensive time as an H-back.
None of the diversions could distract from Phillips' last game, though.
"We've had some great experiences here, but it's time to go," Phillips said. "It is. It's time to go."
When Phillips left Kentucky for the first time after his playing career ended, he found playing in the pros was different. He'd leave the locker room, and no one was waiting for him.
So Phillips' wife waited outside the locker room on Saturday, saying goodbye to every player. She said goodbye to seniors, who finished their careers. She also said goodbye to players who would return next year, when Phillips wouldn't.
He might come back one day. Kentucky is his home. But he won't leave like he did on Saturday.
"What was the girl's name that left Kansas?" Phillips said. "Dorothy? You get to come back. You get to come back."
Sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson left the game and did not return with a strained oblique.