The ink was scarcely dry on the new contract extension for Mark Stoops (assuming he signed it before UK hit the “send” button on the press release) before the on-line debate began within the Big Blue Nation.
More years? More money? For a guy who finished 2-10 in his first season on the job as a head coach?
The reaction was almost as predictable as the move itself. The very people who demand instant results represent one of the reasons coaches make more than most doctors, lawyers, teachers and cops. Those aforementioned professionals can look up at the end of a career and, using a cross-section of data, decide if they’ve been successful. Coaches might get three years to prove themselves in a big-money business.
There are Ws and Ls, and they’re out there for everyone to judge. Instantly.
Judging by his first season, some believe Stoops is, at best, a risk. How do you extend the contractual life of a guy who lost to Western Kentucky in his first game as a Southeastern Conference head coach? And, the argument goes, except for losses to a pair of weaklings, it never got any better.
The hard-bitten, show-me-now fans want microwavable results which can only be bowl bids, meaning the W number is bigger than the L number. And it doesn’t help that the basketball coach on the other side of campus seems to be able to re-fashion his roster with new faces every year and win buckets of games.
What Mitch Barnhart realizes is that when it comes to football, the picture is bigger than that.
Stoops’ team did not cover itself with glory on the field, that’s true. It was an amalgam of players recruited, for the most part, by a previous administration that had a different brand of football in mind. Joker Phillips’ teams played a pro style, play-action offense and (tried to, at any rate) a 3-4 defense. His last two ballclubs weren’t successful at either.
So the losses mounted. But Stoops and his staff were winners in the other key area for which they’re responsible – recruiting, which ultimately was Phillips’ downfall. Before this year’s class settled in at number 17 according to one service, Stoops and company had assembled a group rated, in the early stages, the best in the country.
None of the rankings matter if player performances don’t match (or exceed) reputation. Rich Brooks’ last recruiting class was the highest-rated of the groups he signed, but produced very little.
The new deal for Stoops is a love letter to potential Wildcats of the future. It underscores the notion that Kentucky is bullish on college football.
That’s just plain bull, some say. Show me results before you spend any more money.
If it were a plumbing supply store, I’d agree. But it is the business of college athletics, where there is a pronounced, if unhealthy, philosophy of keeping up with the University of the Joneses. If you aren’t working at getting bigger and better, you’re falling behind because, most certainly, your opponents are on the move.
UK must do what it can to assure recruiting candidates that casting their lot with the Wildcats is not a waste of time. Of course, you can say that about every sport on every campus in America, because college athletics always comes back to the same dynamic: Which team has the most athletes who can make the most plays?
Brooks eventually got to the point where his teams were winning games they weren’t expected to win because of an enriched talent base. Wesley Woodyard, Trevard Lindley and Jacob Tamme arrived in Lexington with suitcases full of rejection notices from other SEC schools.
The Ws and the bowl bids did arrive, but not before the show-me fanatics had their say. “Ditch Rich and Mitch,” the bumper stickers read, almost from the start. The braying was its loudest in 2005, when NCAA sanctions dragged the UK program to pre-determined depths, scholarship reductions robbing the program of an ability to compete. And if that wasn’t enough, a bizarre rash of injuries was crippling.
Brooks survived and, near the end of the ’06 season, began to hear callers on his radio show admit they were wrong.
Stoops is planning a similar turnaround, although he no doubt is hoping it doesn’t take four years, with the hot seat during season number three almost unbearable.
All he can do is keep landing recruits who say “no, thanks” to the teams he’s trying to beat – as many of them as he can. And then turn around and beat those teams often enough to land a bowl bid. Do that and the same nay-sayers not only will accept a contract extension, they’ll demand it – along with a trip to a bigger bowl the following year.
It may not work that way in plumbing supply, but that’s the way it works in college football.
(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.)