Tristian Johnson wasn't surprised when Kentucky coach Joker Phillips decided to coach out the season after being fired on Nov. 4. It was what he expected his coach to do.
When he heard Tennessee coach Derek Dooley wouldn't be coaching the last game of season, he was surprised. It was only later that he realized most coaches don't finish the season after being let go.
"I can't tell you what they're going through right now," Johnson said. "I understand where they're coming from, but Coach Phillips stuck it out with us. I don't know what it feels like for a coach to actually say 'I'm not going to be able to coach your last game.'"
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Volquest.com reported on Sunday that Dooley was given the option to coach the season finale against the Wildcats, but decided not to. Jim Chaney, the Vols' offensive coordinator, will serve as interim coach for Tennessee this week.
Phillips took a day to decide he would coach the final two games of the season after being let go. He said he was initially reluctant to do so, but was convinced when the players made it clear they wanted their coach to be with them in the final two games.
"Joker cares about us," junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "He really cares about us and that's why I respect him so much. He's from UK and he has pride in this school, this city. I know he wanted to coach us the last two games, but he didn't want to be a distraction."
Williamson, who is from Milan, Tenn., is friends with a couple of current Tennessee players. He hasn't had a chance to speak with them about what has happened since Sunday, but said he's glad Phillips decided to finish the season on the sidelines.
"That's really inspirational for me to keep going out there and fighting hard for him," he said. "He really does care about us more than just trying to get wins. He cares about us as individuals and how we live our lives."
Neither team has any hope for the postseason. Kentucky (2-9, 0-7 Southeastern Conference) just snapped an eight-game losing streak this weekend. The Vols (4-7, 0-7 SEC) have lost six of their last seven games and were mathematically eliminated from bowl contention following their 41-18 loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Kentucky still sees something to play for. The players still have pride, and a coach to play for, Johnson said.
"We thought most coaches do that, finish out the season," Johnson said. "To see a team that we're going to play and their coach didn't finish out the season, it's crazy."
Phillips sees something to play for also, but it has nothing to do with him. He remains focused on the seniors, expecting Tennessee to do the same.
"I think they play that way because it's their last game," Phillips said. "I expect ours to be for the last game. I don't think it will be for the coach, I think it will be for them, their emotions surrounding the fact that it will be their last time to play together."
Wildcats Earn Honors
Junior defensive tackle Donte Rumph was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against Samford. He finished with five tackles, including four solo stops. He also had a sack of Bulldog quarterback Andy Summerlin which was returned 25 yards for a touchdown by junior Tristian Johnson.
Junior tailback Raymond Sanders was named an honorable mention SEC player of the week for his performance also. He had a career-high 123 yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries on Saturday while also surpassing 1,000 career rushing yards. He now
"I knew I was close before the game, but I really wasn't going towards that," Sanders said. "Me and (Jonathan George) go into the game trying to match up and compete with each other for yardage and different things. We were trying to get 100 apiece this game."
Junior linebacker Avery Williamson was named an honorable mention linebacker of the week by the College Football Performance Awards on Sunday. He led UK with 13 tackles against Samford and also had two sacks and a pass breakup. He ranks third nationally and leads the SEC with 128 tackles
Scott to get Game Ball
Former UK offensive lineman Mike Scott will get the game ball this weekend after UK plays Tennessee, Phillips said on Monday. Scott, a former walk-on who also served as a student assistant coach, is battling Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Phillips heard from Scott earlier this season and told the team about his struggle. He had a chance to visit with him in George during the Wildcats' bye week.
"There is no bigger Wildcat than him," Phillips said.
You can show your support for Scott's family by liking the Facebook page "Prayers for Mike Scott" or donating to his family at giveforward.com/miracleformike.
Sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson is day-to-day with an oblique strain suffered against Samford.
Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, who is out for the season with a high ankle sprain, had a screw removed from his ankle last week and is expected to be healthy for spring practice.
"He's already standing throwing but he's not dropping back and throwing," Phillips said. "He's a guy that will be ready to compete in the spring with a couple of really good young freshman also, to be sophomores, but Max will be ready."