Arguably the most intriguing part of Saturday’s game at Davis Wade Stadium is the chess match between the schools' head coaches.
Kentucky’s Joker Phillips and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen are two of the Southeastern Conference’s young talents in the coaching profession and will have at least two observers this weekend that consider themselves friendly with both parties in MSU baseball coach John Cohen and his boss Scott Stricklin.
The 23rd-ranked Bulldogs (6-2, 2-2) will host Kentucky this Saturday night for a 6 p.m. contest on ESPNU.
Mississippi State's head baseball coach John Cohen has known Phillips while they both worked across the hall from each other in the football stadium in Lexington from 2004-08 but then Cohen, an MSU alum, left before the 2009 season to coach in Starkville.
“Joker is a young, innovative guy and I've got to be honest - that's one of the smartest things (UK athletic director) Mitch Barnhart ever did by promoting him to be the future head coach once Rich Brooks retires," Cohen said. "I know for a fact he had some big-time offensive coordinator positions. I think there's some coaches in this league that have better talent but nobody gets more out of their kids than Joker and Dan."
Phillips was named on Jan. 18, 2008 Kentucky’s head coach in waiting once Rich Brooks decided to retire and that step was considered an innovative move before other schools like Texas and Florida State handed that title to its assistants currently on staff.
“I was at Kentucky at that time and remembered thinking how proactive it was to handle that situation like that in the way Mitch did that for the university,” Stricklin said.
Stricklin was the University of Kentucky's associate athletic director for media relations when Phillips was the Wildcats offensive assistant.
“Joker and Dan are obviously both great coaches but what I think they both have is that intelligence and ability to sell," Stricklin said. "There's more to being a head coach in today's world of college football and they both get that do it in places with passionate fan bases that are having a lot of success."
Cohen won a Southeastern Conference baseball title the same year (2006) that Kentucky went to a bowl game for the first time since 1999. The Bulldogs baseball coach, who says he still texts with Phillips on a weekly basis, sees many similarities in the way both men coach on Saturdays and possibly more importantly conduct practice on a daily basis.
“I've got to say there's a lot of fake authenticity in our business no matter what the sport you're talking about," Cohen said. "I can assure you that's not the case with both of these guys. They care about the fan bases and their personality is to engage people into what they are doing."
Cohen, who is an avid football fan after growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., watching Paul Bryant coach at Alabama, says he’s incorporated many of the traits of both Phillips and Mullen into his own style on the baseball diamond.
“It is fun to watch both Dan and Joker in games but I got to tell you – watching their practices are unbelievable,” Cohen said. “What I take from that to my team is I don’t there’s two coaches that put together a more prepared group of players from a mental standpoint than Joker and Dan.”
Mullen mentioned quickly in the opening statement of his weekly media conference Monday that Kentucky’s offense, which averages 34.8 points and over 428 yards per game, will be the toughest task to slow down they’ve faced in the 2010 season.
“They can score in a hurry,” Mullen said. “With all their great athletes, they can put points on the board, so they’re never really out of the game. Obviously they’re a team that’s gotten used to winning the last couple years.”
Phillips made media members laugh months ago during Southeastern Conference media days when the first-year head coach jokingly questioned where the media had his team slotted in the Eastern Division.
“The only puzzling thing is, we are the only team that has a head coach that's undefeated,” Phillips said with a laugh. “I can't believe y'all ranked us as low as you did.”
Now that the division title is out of the Wildcats (4-4, 1-4 in SEC East) grasp, Phillips answered what his team’s goal were in the same fashion as Mullen despite the fact the coach in Starkville already has a bowl eligible squad.
“We want to get this program in the best available bowl game for us,” Phillips said.
Asked immediately if there was such a thing as a bad bowl and the Wildcats head coach went back to his comedic style.
“No,” Phillips said with a smile. “You've got one you want to give us now at 4 and 4?”