LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Perhaps it was only fitting on the biggest day of his coaching life the man dubbed "Joker" by his mother decided to have a little fun.
Standing at the podium minutes after being introduced as the eventual successor to Rich Brooks at Kentucky on Friday, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips couldn't help it when asked what it means to know he'll one day be the first black head football coach at his alma mater.
"Wow, you never told me I was African-American," Phillips said, stifling a laugh while turning to Brooks for an explanation.
The laughter died down, and the 44-year-old Phillips, a former Kentucky wide receiver who helped mold the Wildcats into one of the nation's most potent offenses this season, turned serious.
"This thing is about building continuity in the program, which will continue to grow this program," Phillips said. "It's also about production on the field. It's not about being African-American or Caucasian. It's about continuing to grow the program."
It's a program that's flourished under Brooks, who spent five years patiently leading the Wildcats from an NCAA-sanctioned mess to respectability in arguably the country's toughest conference. Kentucky posted its second straight 8-5 season in 2007. The Wildcats beat Florida State 35-28 in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl last month to win consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1951-52.
It's a job unique in its challenges, one that Brooks and athletic director Mitch Barnhart didn't want to leave to just anybody.
For a program lacking in tradition and any real sense of stability or sustained success since Paul "Bear" Bryant bolted for Texas A&M more than 50 years ago, Barnhart hopes having Brooks' replacement in hand will give the Wildcats some much-needed momentum.
"There has not been a senior class since 1996 that had the same head coach during their tenure until this year," Barnhart said. "That's important for us. In a different way, these guys will be able to say that. They'll be able to say that [Phillips] is an extension of [Brooks], and that is huge for us."
While Brooks quelled retirement talk Friday by signing a one-year contract extension through 2011 that will pay him $1.6 million annually, he also knows at 66 years old he's too old to be talking about five-year plans. Rather than let rumors swirl about how much longer he'll stick around, he approached Phillips about taking over whenever he decides "to go fishing," as Brooks put it.
"I think that Joker Phillips has earned the right to do this and carry this program forward," said Brooks, who is 25-35 in five seasons at Kentucky and 116-144-4 in 23 seasons at the collegiate level. "[But] I don't want anybody to jump to the conclusion that I'm done, because I'm not."
Phillips just completed his third season with the Wildcats. Led by quarterback Andre Woodson, Kentucky's offense was one of the best in the SEC.
Phillips was born in tiny Franklin in southern Kentucky and played for the Wildcats from 1981-84 before spending three seasons with the Washington Redskins.
Kentucky's offensive renaissance under Phillips made him a hot coaching prospect, though he said he never really considered leaving his alma mater.
"Opportunities come up every year, but this is where I wanted to be," Phillips said while nodding at Brooks. "This guy is pretty hard to leave."
Instead, it will be Brooks who leaves, eventually anyway. While he didn't offer a timetable on his departure, Brooks did promise to step away before he turns 79, the age of friend and Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.
"Joker won't have to wait that long," Brooks said with a laugh.
Maybe, though Brooks allows he's got as much energy now as he's ever had. And while he can relax knowing his last rebuilding project will be in Phillip's hands whenever he retires, there's still some unfinished business: namely proving that Kentucky's success is sustainable.
"Why can't we be part of the discussion every year instead of perennially being picked at the bottom of the league," Brooks said. "Believe me, we are not going to disappear next year. This football team is a good football team and we will give people fits next year, believe me."