November 30th, 2015

Reed: UK should keep Stoops - for now

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Reed: UK should keep Stoops - for now
Kentucky should keep Marks Stoops at the helm of its football program for at least one more season and hope he can right the ship / photo from the University of Kentucky football’s Facebook page

In the more than 60 years that I’ve followed University of Kentucky football, the coaching job this season might be the worst I’ve ever seen. It was a season where chaos and confusion ruled the sideline, where players consistently showed a lack of discipline and preparation and where coach Mark Stoops and his coordinators constantly made questionable play calls.

So it would be easy to make a case in favor of firing Stoops. Nothing against him personally — he seems like a good and decent man — but he has not shown the progress in three years that would inspire confidence about UK’s future. To the contrary, he has raised questions about whether he knows how to coach up the talent he has recruited.

Less than 24 hours after UK’s spectacular meltdown against Louisville had gone into the books — the Cats blew a 24-7 lead on the way to a 38-24 loss — junior quarterback Patrick Towles, who will get his degree in December, announced that instead of returning to UK for his senior season, he will transfer and play elsewhere as a graduate senior.

There’s no way to see this any other way than as an indictment of Stoops and his staff. A grandson of Jim Bunning, the Hall of Fame pitcher and former U.S. Senator, Towles could have gone to several major powers after graduating from Highlands High School in Fort Thomas. But he only had eyes for UK. Even as he was walking out the door, he said he would “bleed blue forever.”

Yet despite the disaster that UK football has become, I think the only prudent thing to do is keep Stoops and hope his deficiencies are correctable.

One reason is next season’s schedule. A strong Southern Miss team comes on as the season opener. Alabama replaces Auburn. The Florida, Tennessee and Louisville games will be played on the road. Not even the ghost of Paul “Bear” Bryant could do better than 5-7 next season, so you might as well let Stoops take the lickings instead of a new guy.

A second reason is that I have no confidence that UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart will be able to identify a better coach and go get him. It’s far more likely, in fact, that Barnhart will hire the football version of Billy Clyde Gillispie than the second coming of Bryant.

This is the same Barnhart who tore up Stoops’ contract in the middle of last season and gave him a new sweetheart deal that would force UK to pay him $15.56 million if he’s terminated now. Why, you ask, would Barnhart give such job security to a head coach who had accomplished nothing? Good question. He didn’t have to do it. I can understand LSU giving that kind of a buyout to proven head coach Les Miles.

But Mark Stoops?

It gets worse. If Stoops is fired after the 2016 or ’17 seasons, he would still get the $15.56 million. If he is fired after the 2018 season, he would get 80 percent of that. It drops to 60 percent on or after Dec. 1, 2018. I stand to be corrected, but that’s how I read the amendment to his original contract.

It’s similar, but also worse, than the situation that U of L athletic director Tom Jurich faced with Steve Kragthorpe after the 2009 season. After seasons of 6-6, 5-7 and 4-8, it was obvious Kragthorpe had lost the Cardinals’ fan base. He just wasn’t the right fit. Still, Jurich was reluctant to fire him because they were close personal friends and he still believed in Kragthorpe as a coach.

But eventually he became convinced that, like a bad marriage, there were irreconcilable differences between the coach and the fan base. So Jurich bit the bullet and did what was best for the program’s long-term interests. He replaced Kragthorpe with Charlie Strong, the defensive coordinator at Florida who immediately put the program back on track.

Maybe Barnhart thought that if the defensive coordinator from Florida could turn out so well at U of L, the defensive coordinator from Florida State would be just as good a fit for UK. Instead, Stoops has turned out to be his Kragthorpe. But here’s the catch: It cost U of L a relatively modest $2.2 million to buy out Kragthorpe — and Kragthorpe came to U of L with something Stoops didn’t bring to UK: experience as a major college head coach.

For the record, Kragthorpe was 15-21 after three years; Stoops now is 12-24. Since 1961, the only UK coaches to win more than 12 games their first three seasons are Jerry Claiborne (15) and Hal Mumme (18).

If UK keeps Stoops, it would not be fair, considering the schedule, to expect him to work a miracle next season. But 2017 should be a different story. That would be Stoops’ fifth year. If he doesn’t have UK in the middle of the Southeastern Conference pack by then, it would be impossible to make a case for him.

After the U of L debacle, Stoops said UK needs to “get tougher,” which is virtually a self-indictment. He later pledged that the Wildcats would work harder in the offseason. I suppose that’s fine, as far as it goes, but UK needs more than hard work to begin the climb back to respectability.

First, Stoops needs a staff that looks organized, demands discipline and teaches fundamentals. That means he should fire a number of his assistants and replace them with experienced coaches who will make sure the players know their assignments. There can be excuses for losing, but there’s no excuse for not at least looking like an SEC team.

Second, he needs to commit to the “Air Raid” offense made popular by Mumme instead of just paying lip service to it. History tells us that UK will never have the depth of quality talent that you see at Alabama, LSU, Florida, etc. The Wildcats will never have the manpower to knock those teams off the line of scrimmage. But they can win by using the passing game to put constant pressure on the defense. Heck, bring in a coordinator from one of those Big 12 teams that seem to put 70 points on the board with stunning regularity.

Third, he needs to get out in the state to rally the fans. If he has lost them — as Kragthorpe did at U of L — then he has little chance to extricate himself from the negativity that now surrounds the program. We know that UK fans will buy tickets and support a team that’s competitive and fun to watch. But they will not support the kind of incompetence they got this season.

Finally, it was Barnhart who got UK into this mess and it’s Barnhart who needs to find the way out. Instead of retreating into his foxhole, as is his wont when times are tough, he needs to rousingly defend his choice of Stoops and the contract he gave him.

If Barnhart can’t in good conscience do at least that much, then it’s he, more than Stoops, who’s in the wrong job.

 

 

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