The message came via Twitter, squeezed within 140 characters, just before Mark Stoops finished his weekly Monday news conference.
“VandyFootball -- Franklin on possible bowl game: Kentucky is our Super Bowl this week and we couldn’t be more excited about playing them. They are our focus.”
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, via social media, had delivered his thoughts to the Black and Gold Nation, reacting to the fact that their next victory would make the Commodores bowl-eligible.
Somebody relayed it to Stoops, just before he vacated the podium. The UK coach shared some thoughts of his own, and on this Veterans Day, they were roughly akin to the message delivered by U.S. General Anthony McAuliffe, commander of Army forces defending Bastogne, Belgium, during the the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans had given him the opportunity to surrender. His now-famous reply?
Nobody was asking Stoops to surrender, but the notion of shifting the focus of his program from constant, steady improvement to playing spoiler in Nashville on Saturday? He just didn’t have time for that.
“That means nothing to me,” Stoops said. “Whatever motivates our kids, fine, but that won't be something I talk about. That means nothing to me.”
Just two days prior, in the same Wildcat Den following the loss to Missouri, a couple of his players had talked of crushing the dreams of their opponents, now that the Wildcats’ had seen the chances of a bowl bid mathematically snuffed out. Stoops wanted no part of it.
“We need the win for us,” he said, “for our fans, for all the things we're talking about. For our people and our kids and our program. That's motivation enough for me.”
Postponing the ‘Dores claim to a bowl berth would be little more than icing on a fat, Southeastern Conference cake for the Wildcats, if they can deliver a victory in the Music City. It would represent Stoops’ first SEC win as a head coach. And, he said, it would go a long way in showing fans his team is improving.
“I understand. I understand their frustration,” Stoops said. “I think they've been very fair. I know they're frustrated because they haven't been here nine, 10 months (as the coaches have). They've been here nine, ten years or 20 years or 30 years and they want to see things changed. I recognize that and I understand that.
“The only thing I ask them is to continue to stay with this team because, again, I'm not ever one to make excuses. It's just a fact that we have some work to do.”
Stoops reminded Big Blue fans that he never promised change would come overnight. It rarely does. What he did pledge was hard work – by his staff and his players. And, for the most part, that much has been evident all season.
The Cats have taken steps backwards at times (see: Missouri 28, UK 3, halftime) but Stoops has seen to it that they’re not heading in that direction long (see: UK’s 13-play, 73-yard scoring drive that opened the third quarter).
“I appreciate the people that have stuck with us, and I know it's tough,” he said. “It takes a lot of people to be successful, and I think there are a lot of people pulling in the same direction, and we need to continue to have that.”
They’re getting it done in Nashville these days, the way Kentucky did in the middle of the last decade under Rich Brooks – first by scheduling “winnable” non-conference games, and then winning them, followed by just enough conference matchups, including the occasional upset. For the Commodores, that came last Saturday, when they forced four turnovers and beat Florida 34-17 in The Swamp, for the first time since 1945 (despite just 183 yards of total offense).
Vandy completed just six passes against the Gators, but five of them went to wide receiver Jordan Matthews. Like Missouri’s wideouts, Matthews is long (6-foot-3) and fast. He’ll represent another matchup nightmare for the Wildcats.
And while Stoops allowed as how he and his staff now will start to look at younger players a bit more with an eye on next season, he’s not giving up on his veterans – nor does he believe they’ll cash it in, now that a bowl bid is no longer within their grasp.
“I really like the mentality of our senior class,” Stoops said. “There's not a guy in that group that's going to lay down. I think they'll work extremely hard and help turn the page in this program. I think they take pride in that and wanting to help being a part of turning it around and building for the future.”
It’s a future that includes a real shot at a conference victory Saturday in Nashville. It would spoil the afternoon for the Commodores, but don’t tell that to Mark Stoops. It means nothing to him. A win for his Wildcats and their fans – that’s what it’s all about.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)