Joker Phillips, a former NFL wide receiver with decades of experience coaching the position at the collegiate level, has been tapped as the Browns' new wide receivers coach, coach Mike Pettine announced Thursday.
Phillips, 51, replaces Mike McDaniel, who spent one season with the Browns.
"I think the first thing when you meet Joker, you just get a sense for his passion for the game and specifically wide receiver play," Pettine said. "That's his specialty and he loves it. Everybody I've talked to that's the first thing that comes out, just his mentality and how much he truly cares about that position."
Phillips' ties to the Browns' new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, date back to the 1980s, when Phillips got his first coaching job at Kentucky. DeFilippo's father, Gene, was the Wildcats' associate athletic director at the time. Phillips and DeFilippo worked together years later at Notre Dame, where Phillips was the wide receivers coach and DeFilippo was a graduate assistant.
"We always stayed in contact," Phillips said. "I wanted to come up here and help him and be with him again because he's such a young knowledgeable coach.
"I've seen him work his magic with the different quarterbacks he's worked with. I just felt like it was a good opportunity for me to get with the person I want to help and help be successful."
Phillips met with Pettine in Berea before accepting his first full-time NFL coaching job.
"The word that kept coming back is passion, energy and how important it is to him. Very competitive," Pettine said. "That kind of gets channeled with him through his players. It was really an easy decision for us. Not very long -- 10 or 15 minutes of sitting down with him -- I had a pretty good sense that he was going to be our guy."
Phillips has been coaching for 26 years, and the majority of that time has focused exclusively on the wide receiver position. After finishing fifth in Kentucky history in numerous receiving categories and logging three years in the NFL and CFL, Phillips returned to his alma mater as a graduate assistant in 1988 and eventually worked his way to the top as the second African-American head football coach in Southeastern Conference history.
Phillips' first stint as Kentucky's wide receivers coach spanned from 1991-96. After two seasons at Cincinnati, two at Minnesota and one apiece at Notre Dame and South Carolina, Phillips returned to Kentucky and became a main cog in one of the best offensive stretches in program history.
While maintaining his focus on the wide receivers, Phillips rose up the ranks under coach Rich Brooks, going from wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator (2003-04) to offensive coordinator/wide receivers (2005-08) to head coach of the offense/wide receivers (2009) before he replaced Brooks, who retired, in 2010. In 2007, Kentucky racked up the second-most yards in program history (5,764).
"I've had a lot of success at the position and one of the reasons is I know what I'm looking for and I know what (wide receivers) look like," said Phillips, who saw four of his wide receivers become team captains during his second stint as a Kentucky assistant. "I played the position for a long time and been able to corral those different personalities because you're going to get a different personality in the wide receiver room.
"When I was the coordinator at Kentucky, everybody wondered why I didn't go coach the quarterbacks. I wanted to be able to manage the personalities in that room because you see so many different levels in that room. The team takes on that personality. I wanted to be able to control that."
In Phillips' three seasons as head coach, the Wildcats reached a postseason bowl game, snapped a 26-year losing streak to rival Tennessee and logged a 13-24 record. Phillips' most recent stop was Florida, where he served as the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator under Will Muschamp from 2012-13.
"That's a great resource for me," Pettine said. "He's been a head coach in the SEC, has coordinated in the SEC and just has a wealth of experience. He's coached a lot of NFL players. I think it will be really easy in a lot of ways because football is football and the fundamentals transcend whether it's high school, college or the NFL."
Throughout his career, Phillips has seen a number of his receivers thrive in college and move on to the NFL.
In his first stint with the Wildcats, Neal Clark broke the program record for receptions in a season and Craig Yeast began his path toward becoming the SEC's all-time leading receiver. Ron Johnson went on to the NFL after playing under Phillips at Minnesota while Notre Dame sent two to the league, Javin Hunter and David Givens, after Phillips' one year with the program. At South Carolina, Phillips tutored Troy Williamson, an eventual No. 7 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, during his freshman season. At Kentucky, Phillips coached Stevie Johnson and Randall Cobb, the latter of whom began his career as a quarterback before transitioning into one of the best receivers in program history.
Phillips, who grew up in Franklin, Kentucky, finished his Wildcats playing career with 75 catches for 935 yards and nine touchdowns. Sandwiched between two seasons with the Washington Redskins, Phillips played with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL for a year before embarking on his coaching career.
Phillips inherits a group of Browns wide receivers that performed well in spite of minimal outside expectations. Veteran Andrew Hawkins led the group with a career-high 63 catches for 824 yards while undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel chipped in with 621 yards. Miles Austin (47 catches, 568 yards) and Josh Gordon (24 rec., 303 yards) added contributions during their respectively shortened seasons.
"I've had a couple of opportunities in the past but I just thought at my age now, it was a great opportunity to come in with someone I was familiar with in John DeFilippo," Phillips said.
"(At the college level), you take an 18-year-old and try to teach him how to be a college football player and a man. I think the same (process) happens in pro football. You're taking a man and trying to teach him how to be a pro."