LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Saturday's Kentucky-Tennessee matchup can be summed up in one word:
On one sideline is Kentucky's Joker Phillips, coaching the Wildcats for the last time after being fired on Nov. 4. His counterpart is Jim Chaney, who is serving as the Volunteers' interim coach after Derek Dooley declined to finish the season following his firing on Sunday.
This adds a new twist to a rivalry game.
But when the teams meet in Saturday's showdown in Knoxville, Tenn., everyone will be playing hard. Both schools are looking for their only Southeastern Conference victory this season.
Asked how emotional it could be for players, Phillips said, "I think they play that way because it's their last game. I expect ours to be (emotional) for the last game.
"I don't think it will be for the coach, I think it will be for them, their emotions surrounding the fact that it will be their last time to play together."
Coaching his last game for Kentucky (2-9, 0-7 SEC) against Tennessee (4-7, 0-7) is significant for Phillips because the Volunteers have been a constant rival in his life.
He was born and raised in Franklin, Ky., on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Phillips' final game as a Wildcats wide receiver was a 17-12 win on Nov. 24, 1984, Kentucky's last victory before losing 26 straight to Tennessee.
He ended that streak as a coach with last year's 10-7 victory in Lexington, Ky. And now, 28 years to the day after his last game as a Kentucky player, he will exit as its coach against that same Tennessee team.
Phillips has downplayed his pending exit and tried to keep the focus on his players. Nonetheless, Kentucky senior wide receiver La'Rod King said he has been motivated to send Phillips out on a positive note.
"It's been a blessing for him to come back to his home state and his home school," King said. "Granted, he's been through (player) injuries, freshmen having to step up and play, battling personal issues, I guess.
"Of course, he's human. He has emotions just like all of us do. He stuck through it. He's a strong guy and an awesome person. I respect him to the highest degree."
Phillips' initial instinct was not to coach the Wildcats' final two games after his firing. He thought he'd be a distraction to the players.
But after players told him they wanted him to coach out the year, he returned. Kentucky followed with Saturday's 34-3 win over Samford, ending an eight-game losing streak.
Dooley chose a different path at Tennessee.
Athletic director Dave Hart gave Dooley the option of coaching the Volunteers' season finale after firing him on Sunday. Dooley declined, not wanting to affect his players' focus as they prepared for their final game.
That thrust Chaney, Tennessee's offensive coordinator, into the interim role.
Dooley's "concern was for the players," Hart said. "Derek was not at all bitter, he was not concerned for himself in that regard. He talked at length about his concern and how difficult that might be for the players and it might take away their focus on the final game of the season and in particular the seniors. His concern was for the players and not himself."
Tennessee offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said he and the Volunteers would have played hard on Senior Day no matter who was coaching them.
"We're going to go out there and try to win," James said. "That's what everyone on our team wants to do is win. (Dooley) basically told us he thought it would be a distraction. Whatever he feels is best."
Chaney nonetheless has tried to keep things as normal as possible this week.
"That is ultimately our job, to go win a football game," he said. "You want nothing but the best for your football players. When you quit wanting that more than anything else, it is time to get out of the profession. We want to send these seniors out with a victory and let our younger kids taste that and know what it feels like to win a game here in Neyland Stadium and enjoy that victory and move on from there."
Phillips dismissed the idea that Kentucky could pounce on Tennessee because an interim coach is leading it, having seen it from experience.
In Phillips' first season in 2010, Kentucky faced a Pittsburgh team in the BBVA Compass Bowl being led by an interim coach. Dave Wannstedt had resigned and Mike Haywood accepted the head coaching job three weeks before the bowl game.
Haywood was then fired on Jan. 1, 2011 following his arrest on felony domestic violence charges, and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was named interim coach a week before the game. The Panthers won 27-10.
"It was another game for those guys," Phillips said of Pittsburgh.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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