LEXINGTON, Ky. | Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks retired Monday after seven years in which he engineered the probation-riddled program's rise to perennial bowl participant, explaining it was time to turn the job over to his successor-in-waiting, Joker Phillips.
"This is the end of the road of the old man's coaching career," said Brooks, who spent 25 seasons as a college coach and led the NFL's St. Louis Rams for a brief stint in the mid-1990s.
Phillips, the team's offensive head coach who agreed to become the head coach in waiting two years ago, didn't attend Brooks' final news conference Monday at Commonwealth Stadium. UK football spokesman Tony Neely said Phillips was on a recruiting trip.
But he issued a statement through the school Monday night, citing Brooks' "unbelievable job in getting the program competitive in the Southeastern Conference."
"The thing I like about him is that he stayed the course and stuck to his plan when many doubted that the program was headed in the right direction," Phillips said. "As a Kentuckian, and a former player, I'm very proud of what he's done for Kentucky football."
When Phillips is officially named, with an announcement expected as early as this week, the three Football Bowl Subdivision programs in the commonwealth will all be led next year by black coaches in their first season as head coach, including Louisville's Charlie Strong and Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart.
Brooks' decision was hardly a surprise. Following Kentucky's 21-13 loss to Clemson in the Music City Bowl, the 68-year-old coach told his players then the media that he was "80 percent" sure he would retire. Despite calls from former players and his own children suggesting he stay on, Brooks said he knew it was time to step aside.
"The only person that was comfortable with this decision was me," he said.
Brooks said athletics director Mitch Barnhart and school president Lee Todd made clear that he was welcome to stay, and offered him most of what he was seeking in compensation and a commitment to facility improvements.
"That was not the overriding thing," he said. "Had they given me everything I'd asked for in that regard, I probably would still be here making this same decision."
Todd said there was never any consideration to letting Brooks go, even during the bumpy start to his Kentucky career when he compiled just a 9-25 record during the first three seasons. Plagued by probation, a turnaround would take time, and Todd said he was confident Brooks could do it.
"Rich Brooks was the right person at the right time for this program," Todd said.
After those first three years, Brooks began his media day press conference before the 2006 season by joking, "I'm back." The year began with the Wildcats' first real steps toward respectability in the Southeastern Conference. Kentucky went 8-5 that season, beating Georgia and then Clemson in the Music City Bowl.
Another 8-5 season followed in 2007, including an upset of top-ranked and eventual national champion LSU. The Wildcats scratched out a 7-6 year in 2008 despite major problems on offense and posted another 7-6 season this year, including road wins over Georgia and Auburn before their first postseason loss under Brooks in a Music City Bowl rematch with Clemson.
The rebirth of Kentucky football had many faces besides Brooks, including quarterback Andre Woodson, who took many school passing records away from Tim Couch, receiver Keenan Burton, linebacker Wesley Woodyard and tight end Jacob Tamme. Barnhart said it was the recruitment of many of those players — and Brooks' relationship with them — that helped see through the turnaround.
"It was a bunch of young players who came here sort of under recruited," Barnhart said. "They believed in Rich, believed in the things he was doing, and foundationally saw the program getting better."
Still, Brooks lamented the near misses the Wildcats suffered during his tenure, including another tough loss to rival Tennessee in the season finale.
"It has been a good ride, a very bumpy ride," Brooks said. "The start of it was really, really bumpy. The end of it had some bumps because we were close to achieving some things that I feel unfilled at this point not having achieved."
Although the four consecutive bowl appearances — and three straight wins — was something none of his UK predecessors, even the legendary Bear Bryant, was able to achieve, Brooks acknowledged he fell short of many of his goals. He wanted the program to further climb the ladder in the Southeastern Conference, improve its bowl destination and break a few long losing streaks, such as those against Tennessee and Florida.
The rebuilding project at Kentucky was the second of his long career. He revived a moribund Oregon program after taking over in 1977, eventually leading the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in his final season in 1994.
His success with the Ducks helped him land a shot coaching the Rams, but he was fired after two underwhelming seasons.
On Monday, when he stepped up to the podium for the final time to call it quits, he began — as he always does — with the team injury update.
"I'm walking and well," he joked.