John Clay: Kentucky's Stoops calmly enters the SEC media fray

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 17, 2013 

HOOVER, Ala. — Mark Stoops was a little nervous.

Wouldn't you be?

Here he was, the first-year head football coach at the University of Kentucky thrown into the exhaustive gantlet that is SEC Football Media Days, the annual monster that is supposed to kick off the addiction that is football in the southern part of these United States.

"You know," SEC associate commissioner and Nicholasville native Mark Whitworth told Stoops as the UK coach was being led from one media room to another, "the only event that gives out more credentials is media day at the Super Bowl."

Stoops said he could sure believe that. "I talked to some people before I came here," the coach told a Lexington media member who was following him as he navigated the chaos. "And they told me it was a circus."

If so, then for the most part Stoops tamed the savage beasts. The overall impression of one of the four new kids on the conference coaching block — the only one without head coaching experience — was favorable.

In the "big room" where the print media dwell, Stoops got plenty of questions and gave good answers.

He just seemed, well, real.

"The big thing for me, what I try to do in all aspects of the program, is just be who I am," he said later. "Like it or not, some may like, some may not. But I can't change. I can't put on a different facade. Just be myself and do the best I can."

He was nervous, but not too nervous. He didn't put on a show, but he didn't dodge questions. He gave good answers.

One of the best came when asked about balancing fan expectations with the reality of the situation.

"It's really, to be honest with you, an uncomfortable situation for me because it's not my style really to try to temper those expectations," Stoops said. "I think the educated fan knows where we're at as a program, knows we have a lot of work to do. But the flip side of that is I want the excitement."

In one of the television rooms, someone asked what advice he had gotten from Jimbo Fisher, his former boss at Florida State who was an assistant coach at a couple of SEC schools.

Stoops thought for a moment, then said, "Hold onto your butt."

That got a laugh.

Stoops stuck to the script, too. That was the big thing. At one of these events, going from ballroom to ballroom answering the same questions over and over from different people, it's easy to say something you didn't need to say, something you didn't want to say.

"You have to stay focused," Stoops said at one point as he was waiting to go on a television set for interviews. "That's hard to do sometimes."

Especially when in nearly every room you are asked about brother Bob's comments that the SEC is overrated — "Every coach is going to defend his conference. We did that when I was in the ACC," Mark said — and about the uncertainty at quarterback, about the early success in recruiting, and about Kentucky being a basketball school.

"If it's a basketball school it's because they've had so much success in basketball," Stoops said. "That's what we're trying to do."

In fact, John Calipari called Stoops as he was making the rounds on Wednesday just to see how things were going.

Then, finally, the interviews were over and it was time to meet up with players Avery Williamson, Raymond Sanders and Donte Rumph, grab lunch, get on the plane and fly back to Lexington.

Stoops was still standing.

"I was walking into certain rooms, and I was like 'what I'm supposed to be doing?' because I've never been through it," he said. "There's a lot of interest in this league and a lot of interest in Kentucky and what we're doing. So it was fun. It was fun to go through it."

One new experience down, many more to go. Freshmen report in about two weeks. Fan Day is Aug. 9. Practice is around the corner.

"I've missed being around the players," Mark Stoops said. "Right now, I'm really ready to get back and get going."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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