UK's Mark Stoops building a program that won't take shortcuts

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 16, 2013 

Head Coach Mark Stoops smiled for fans during an autograph session at UK Football Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 9, 2013. by Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

PABLO ALCALA — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

The question hung in the air for a few seconds.

Coach Mark Stoops shifted slightly in his seat, then crossed his arms across his chest as he pondered an answer.

Is this rebuilding job at Kentucky more difficult than you thought it would be when you took over in December?

Sometimes even answering a question is a process for the coach who constantly harps on "the process" of getting better.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Herald-Leader on Thursday morning, Stoops tackled the question head on.

He didn't dodge it.

"It's about on par with where I thought it was," Stoops said of the rebuilding job at UK, which has had three straight losing seasons. "I watched some film and saw a little bit about what we had here and I knew it was going to be difficult. You knew what you were getting into."

This isn't Stoops' first rebuilding job.

It's quite comparable to his time at Arizona as defensive coordinator under his older brother Mike. In their first two seasons, Arizona started 6-18 before those Wildcats managed to go 6-6 in year three, their first non-losing season in six years.

"That was a very difficult rebuilding job as well," the younger Stoops said. "In some ways, more difficult than this."

At Kentucky, he's seeing good support from the administration and the fans. He feels like he's in the right place at the right time.

"I'm not depressed about it," Stoops said. "I knew what I was getting into and I'm optimistic about the future because I feel like things are right on target."

Stoops, 46, talks about the idea of "the process" so often that it almost could be a chugging chant in a college party drinking game.

He's been preaching about the process since UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot met him as a young player and then coach at Wyoming in the late 1990s.

"To a fan, you may only think about that game," Eliot explained of the process this summer. "To me, it's every day. I have something to do every single day to make our team better."

It's a concept they stress to the players. Don't just say you're going to be the best player you can be, do other things to actually make sure that happens.

"You need to work on being on time, working as hard as you can in the weight room," Eliot continued. "You need to work on studying your playbook today when you have free time. You need to work on getting to know your teammates. You need to work on doing an extra drill in this specific thing. You emphasize all of those things in the process, then the outcome will be reached. Not to be a philosophy professor or anything."

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown is a little more new to Stoops' process talk, just starting under the head coach this season, but he's a big believer in it, too.

"When you're coming in, laying the groundwork, you have to have blinders on," Brown said in late July. "It has to be small improvements, the daily process of getting better."

That's not to say the process doesn't stall from time to time.

Stoops certainly wasn't pleased on Friday morning after the first of the day's two practices. The coach talked about missed opportunities, missed chances to get better after a particularly poor practice.

"We wasted it today," Stoops said. "That's exactly what I told them, we wasted the day. Wasted the morning."

The process isn't foolproof.

It's still college football. It's still a young team, a team that lacks depth, a team that might take its lumps early (and often).

"The competitor in me is going to feel the frustration throughout this season," Stoops admitted. "You also understand that it's a process and I have to keep telling myself that: that it's a process and we need to get better, to get better each and every day. That's really all you can control."

Suffering the bad to get to the good

The process isn't always quick.

It is a process after all.

So even if Kentucky fans aren't prepared to deal with losses, Stoops said he is. In his 17 years coaching at the college level, he's been a part of four losing seasons, the most recent in 2007 at Arizona when those Wildcats went 5-7.

"I've never even asked him about it, but he went through a similar thing when his brother took the job at Arizona," Brown said. "He's seen it. I know he believes we can do it faster here at Kentucky, as do I."

Stoops has been through bad seasons before and knows it's possible again, saying earlier this week that while he doesn't want to throw anyone under the proverbial bus, there are still a lot of loaded question marks for this Kentucky team.

"We are not great at certain positions," he said Wednesday. "We are not good enough at certain positions to win a lot of football games right now."

There has been frustration trying to put together a true depth chart because at many positions, UK has players who are equal in talent.

"There's nobody jumping up to say, 'Hey, you have to play me,'" Stoops said. "We want to find guys that make us say we've got to find a way to get him on the field."

Because of the lack of depth, Stoops and staff have been walking a tightrope between practicing in a tough, physical way and backing off to avoid more injury. This week, for instance, potential starting center Zach Myers hurt his foot during a physical drill at the start of practice.

"We're laying this foundation right now," Stoops said. "There's no getting around being tough and being physical as we can be. ... But I choose to push there because it's going to pay off sometime."

Stoops said he has the intestinal fortitude to get through a bad season should it happen. His first two seasons at Arizona, the team went 3-8.

But in many ways, he also learned at Arizona that the idea of the process works. That 5-7 season — his last losing one as a coach — was followed by two straight eight-win seasons, both capped by bowl games.

Again, it's a process.

"It's about the process each day and every week," Stoops said. "Whether you win or you lose, when we come in on Sunday, it's a new day. That's the truth.

"And when we start winning a whole bunch of games, it's going to be the same way."


Aug. 31: vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville, 7 p.m.


Sept. 7: vs. Miami (Ohio), noon

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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