DESTIN, Fla. - Joker Phillips has been around long enough to understand more than just offensive and defensive schemes. The Kentucky football coach knows about expectations, and what happens when a team falls short.
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart understands it as well. On Thursday, he said he needs to see progress from the Wildcats' program in 2012.
"We've got a lot of good, young players," Barnhart told Cats Illustrated while in Destin for the Southeastern Conference's spring meetings. "We have got to find a way to build off the people we've got in our program, and we have to find a way to make some progress. How is that defined? I think I'll know it when I see it."
In an exclusive interview with Cats Illustrated, Phillips addressed some of the negativity surrounding the program after finishing his second year as head coach with an 11-14 record.
"I get it. I've been around this program for 30-something years, and I was on the worst team, 0-10-1 (in 1982)," said Phillips, a former UK player and assistant coach. "We've come a long way where the expectations are different. There wasn't much negative then because a lot of people didn't care."
There was negativity in 2011, though. Phillips' squad struggled mightily in a 5-7 season and was outscored 137-20 during one three-game stretch, the largest scoring margin for a three-game losing streak in school history.
As unrest among the fan base grew, Barnhart twice issued public statements of support for Phillips, including an open letter following the final game of the season, a 10-7 win over Tennessee that snapped UK's 26-game losing streak to the Volunteers.
That victory, along with a 19-10 loss on the road SEC East champion Georgia the week before, gives Phillips hope for the future.
"It would have been easy for them to fold up their tent and get ready for the next season after the Vanderbilt game, but I thought our guys responded and played maybe the best we've played," Phillips said. "One of them was a win. We played a really good Georgia team and just didn't make as many plays as they did. I'm proud of the way those guys finished the season. It would have been easy for those guys to lay down, and I think a lot of people expected them to lay down. But they didn't."
Barnhart said on Thursday the program took a step back last year, falling below .500 for the second straight season and ending a five-season streak of bowl appearances.
It's not unlike what happened when Phillips first returned to the school as an assistant for former head coach Rich Brooks.
The Wildcats had gone 7-5 under Guy Morriss in 2002 before slipping to 4-8 the next year. That was the beginning of three straight losing seasons as the program recovered from probation.
The silver lining for Phillips is that as in those leaner years, there was a core of younger players who propelled the Cats into the following five years and a streak of bowl games. Even as his team struggled last year, he saw a similar core emerge.
"I saw them making plays last year," he said. "You see Bud Dupree, Eric Dixon, Josh Clemons, Ashely Lowery, a lot of them made plays. We've got a chance to be a big-time team here for a long time."
Barnhart hopes the same thing. With those players, he hopes to see the program move forward.
"I've been fortunate," Barnhart said. "I've won a conference championship in football every place I've ever worked. It's been pretty good. I would like to have that on our resume at Kentucky as well. There's nothing that would make me any happier than to say we won the Southeastern Conference championship and got to represent our league at a BCS bowl in football."
Sophomore running back Josh Clemons, who tore his meniscus against South Carolina on Oct. 8, is expected to be ready for fall camp. He was allowed to take two weeks and go home during the summer and will return with the rest of the team early in June.
"We're going to push him a little bit harder now that the summer is here to see how far along he is," Phillips said.
Senior quarterback Morgan Newton is still working to return from a torn labrum suffered on Oct. 29 against Mississippi State. Senior defensive end Collins Ukwu, recovering from a torn labrum suffered against Tennessee, is almost fully recovered. Ukwu and Newton have remained on campus this summer to rehab their injuries.
"Collins, I think, is a little ahead of Morgan," Phillips said. "The reason being, he doesn't have to throw. He's further along. If we had to go today, I think (Ukwu) would be ready. Morgan has been throwing a little, not throwing a lot. But by mid-July, we think he'll be throwing full speed."
There are no new injuries since the conclusion of spring practice.