LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — 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."
Phillips said he had gotten everything he requested of Barnhart in regards to his players and didn't think more resources or better facilities would have helped. He believes his successor will be helped by getting a strong-armed quarterback and the deep upper class that he lacked.
In a letter on the Wildcats' web site announcing Phillips' dismissal, Barnhart said a nationwide search for his replacement would begin immediately.
Atlanta Falcons first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has been mentioned as a candidate, although Falcons coach Mike Smith said Monday he didn't know Kentucky even had an opening and no one had contacted him.
Whoever succeeds Phillips will likely bring a new staff and philosophy. That has some Kentucky players concerned about their futures, but for now they are focused on closing out the present on a high note for Phillips and themselves.
"Seeing Coach go was definitely a heartbreaker," redshirt freshman guard Zach West said. "This program means everything to him and it's meant a lot to me. This team's young, but we're just going to do what we've done all year and just come back to work."
Junior linebacker Avery Williamson said it was important to the team for Phillips to finish the season.
"We definitely wanted him to coach" the last two games, Williamson said. "He's been coaching us all year and we didn't want him to go out on that note."