Stephens: UK, WKU programs going in different directions

Head coach Willie Taggart is doused with the gatorade bucket after WKU’s win over Kentucky. WKU won 32-31 against Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium on Sep. 15, 2012. This is WKU’s first win against a SEC opponent.

Brad Stephens

The postgame reactions of Willie Taggart and Joker Phillips on Saturday said all you needed to know about where their programs are heading.

Taggart’s WKU team had just beat Phillips’ Kentucky squad 32-31 in overtime on a gutsy two-point conversion.

Taggart looked like a kid on Christmas.

Phillips looked like a kid who’d been grounded.

Taggart told a Lexington cameraman that “WKU red is the new blue in Kentucky now, baby!” and Lambeau Leaped into the visiting fans’ section at Commonwealth Stadium.

Fifteen minutes later he appeared in front of the media wearing a “Will on the Hill” t-shirt, answered the reporters’ questions, got up and gave a big “Whoooo’s got it better than us?” as he left the room.

Then you had Phillips.

UK’s coach walked across the field for the postgame handshake with a blank look on his face.

He was terse with answers to reporters, both in the press conference and on his postgame radio show.

Phillips spoke like a man whose team was 1-2 a year after going 5-7, had just lost to “little brother” WKU for the first time in program history and had an eight-game SEC gauntlet looming.

He spoke like a coach who knew he looming.

He spoke like a coach who knew he was going to lose his job.

Three years ago, the state’s three Football Bowl Subdivision schools, WKU, UK and Louisville, all hired new coaches.

U of L hired Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong.

UK promoted Phillips, the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator who’d already been deemed “coach-in-waiting.”

And WKU chose Taggart, Stanford running backs coach and former Topper player and assistant.

Now in year three, Strong and Taggart are both the popular faces of their programs. Meanwhile, Phillips might not make it through his third year.

It’s probably not fair to compare Strong and Taggart, because they’ve never met on the field.

But when it comes to the Phillips-Taggart matchup, it’s easy to see which program is booming and which is busting.

UK routed WKU 63-28 in 2010.

The Wildcats won 14-3 in 2011.

WKU beat UK 32-31 on Saturday.

That means in a two-year stretch the Wildcats have gone from being five touchdowns better than the Toppers to not even being able to beat them.

Today, WKU is probably the second-best team in the state, trailing only undefeated U of L.

Phillips’ ‘Cats are the commonwealth’s third-best team (or, as some fans have joked, the fourth-best behind U of L, WKU and Louisville Trinity High School).

Maybe 40 years ago a three-year tenure wouldn’t have been labeled enough time to make a call on whether to fire or keep a coach.

But in the what-have-you-done-lately world of modern college football, three years is the new five.

If you don’t win in three years or less, you’re probably gone.

Taggart took a program that didn’t beat anyone three years ago and beat an SEC team.

Phillips took a program that was winning consistently and has yet to build on that foundation. He probably won’t get the chance to, either.

WKU red may not be the new blue among the majority of the state’s fans.

But when it comes to the on-field performances between the two teams and coaches, red seems headed in a better direction than blue.