Joker Phillips has practiced on a lot of Thanksgiving mornings.
But the Kentucky coach couldn’t remember one as beautiful as this one.
The cool breeze and the warm sun made a postcard perfect backdrop for the end of the Phillips era at Kentucky, which had its final practice on Thursday and will have its final game of the season at Tennessee on Saturday.
“It’s a day to be thankful to be playing this game,” Phillips said.
The team, all down on one knee in a semicircle around its coach, listened to final instructions, which included being careful and safe that night.
And one other thing: “I told them to tell their loved ones how they feel about them, whether good or bad.”
For his part, Phillips talked about being thankful despite losing his job three weeks before at this place he has loved for nearly half of his life.
“I’m always thankful for everything I have and everything that I’ve been given,” he said. “I feel good about what we’ve done here. We’ve done things here the right way and that’s what’s important to me. It’s more important to me that we’ve touched a lot of lives. I’m very thankful.”
But it wasn’t all picturesque postcard scenes at the Nutter practice fields on Thursday morning.
There were also plenty of candid shots, including defensive line coach David Turner being forced to roll nearly halfway across the turf field by his cheering linemen.
Or each Kentucky senior acting as foolish as possible in the Cats’ final tackle ritual, where the team forms a tight gauntlet that each player runs through before slamming into a giant dummy wearing an orange jersey.
Phillips ran the gauntlet first.
“I think I had the best tackle,” he beamed afterward.
But he also could have mentioned cornerback Cartier Rice leaping off of a teammate’s back to tackle the dummy or kicker Craig McIntosh opting instead to leap into the air and drop kick the dummy.
The players urged their coaches to run through, too.
Offensive line coach Mike Summers agreed, but only if they agreed to replace the tackling dummy with senior offensive lineman Larry Warford.
Summers sprinted through the tunnel of sweaty, happy players and hurled himself onto Warford with a thud.
The entire team exploded into laughter.
Afterward, Phillips was asked if he worried that Summers might injure Warford.
“No. I was worried Larry Warford was going to hurt Mike Summers,” Phillips said with a laugh. “That’s what I was worried about. Larry gave in; he actually flopped like the NBA (guys) do. It actually helped Coach Summers with the tackle.”
It was the perfect ending to a picture-perfect Thanksgiving practice.
As leaves of orange and yellow and red blew in from the neighborhood next to the practice fields, Phillips was asked if he’d miss the blue and white he’s worn as both a player, an assistant coach and a head coach.
Of course, he said.
“But life goes on. It doesn’t stop because I’m not here. That’s the thing: I’m not one of those guys that wants to be remembered about anything. I want to be able to watch these guys and the guys coming after them wear the blue and white.”
- Senior defensive end Collins Ukwu injured his knee in Tuesday’s practice. He will travel to Knoxville for the game but is listed as doubtful, Phillips said. The senior has started every game this season for the Cats.
- Wide receiver/punt returner Demarco Robinson (strained oblique) was able to practice this week and likely will play against Tennesssee.
- Wide receiver E.J. Fields did not practice this week (undisclosed) and will not play on Saturday.