Gene Chizik could join Joker Phillips, John L. Smith in SEC finales

Gene Chizik could join Joker Phillips, John L. Smith in SEC finales

November 21st, 2012 by David Paschall in Sports - College

John L. Smith

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Derek Dooley coached his final game for Tennessee last Saturday in a 41-18 loss at Vanderbilt, and he's about to have company.

While this season's Southeastern Conference is filled with powerhouses such as Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina, there are four league programs already eliminated from the bowl picture regardless of their Thanksgiving week outcomes. John L. Smith will coach Arkansas for a final time Friday against LSU, and Joker Phillips will guide Kentucky for the last time Saturday against Tennessee.

Phillips has spent 23 seasons with the Wildcats as a receiver, a graduate assistant, a full-time assistant or the head coach.

"I've been through this before and understand it, and I know this is definitely not about me and the time that I've spent here," Phillips said. "I've left here before and had to leave here before and went out and was building a nice little resumé for myself when I was called back here. We understand it, and very seldom does anyone get to stay at a place nine years coaching for the first time and then 10 years this time."

His Wildcats were projected to finish last in the SEC East this season, but Arkansas entered September as a top-10 team nationally. The Razorbacks lost coach Bobby Petrino in April after Petrino lied about an extramarital relationship, and Smith was hired later that month on a 10-month contract for $850,000.

Quarterback Tyler Wilson, tailback Knile Davis and receiver Cobi Hamilton returned to lead a potent offense, but the Razorbacks blew a 28-7 lead in their second game against Louisiana-Monroe and lost 34-31 in overtime. Arkansas lost 52-0 to visiting Alabama the next week and is 4-7 entering Friday's finale.

"We've had a lot of ups and downs, and it's one of those years that you kind of look at as a little bit of a perfect storm," Smith said. "It's been great coming to work every day, and our guys work hard. We've lost a lot of guys, so it's been a rewarding year from the standpoint of going to the field and watching a lot of freshmen grow by leaps and bounds.

"It's been a year I'm thankful I've had. I just wish it could have been better."

Phillips and Smith could be joined in unemployment by Auburn's Gene Chizik, who entered this season with a 30-10 record with the Tigers and won the 2010 BCS championship. Auburn went 14-0 two seasons ago during Cam Newton's one-year wizardry at quarterback and went 8-5 last season.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left after last season to become head coach at Arkansas State and took any remaining punch with him, as this year's Tigers are 3-8 and rank 112th in total offense among the 120 Bowl Subdivision teams.

Auburn president Jay Gogue said he will evaluate Chizik after the season, which ends with Saturday's Iron Bowl at Alabama. Chizik has been a part of three undefeated teams -- he was defensive coordinator at Auburn in 2004 and at Texas in 2005 -- yet his last two seasons as head coach at Iowa State plus this year have produced a combined 8-27 record.

"When you're in the business this long and have kind of been there and seen it all, you just know these are some of the unfortunate valleys you hope you don't hit in your career," Chizik said. "I've been through a couple of them, and it's not fun and it's not easy. I think I've been able to stay grounded with whichever way it goes.

"It's the jungle we live in, and this is what we choose to do for a living. When it's going great, you better stay grounded, and when it's not going great, you better stay grounded."

Kentucky had made four consecutive bowl appearances when Phillips, then the coach-in-waiting, took over for Rich Brooks after the 2009 season. Phillips made it five straight in 2010 with a berth in the BBVA Compass Bowl, but a 6-5 record through his first 11 games has been followed by a 5-18 mark since, including setbacks this season to Louisville and Western Kentucky.

The Wildcats snapped a 26-year losing streak to Tennessee last season with a 10-7 win at Commonwealth Stadium, but a 38-0 loss at Florida this season was their 26th straight against the Gators.

Phillips is among the league's most liked coaches, and his players begged him to coach the final two games after athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced the firing through a letter on Kentucky's website. He obliged and led the Wildcats to a 34-3 drubbing of Samford last Saturday.

"This place has been to 15 bowl games in the history of the school, and I've been a part of eight of them," Phillips said. "None of those have an asterisk by it. There are some bowl games in the history of this place that have asterisks for not doing the right thing, but we've done things the right way.

"If you had told me in 1981 when I arrived about the things we've done here, I would have told you that I would take it. I will definitely take these things and move on and continue building that resumé."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.