Mark Story: Job one for Stoops is winning 'head game' with UK players

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 5, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops talked to players during the second half as UK played WKU at LP Field on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Amy Wallot

AMY WALLOT — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

One of my working theories coming into the 2013 Kentucky football season was that the UK roster, freed of the rampant negativity that swirled around the Wildcats program as Joker Phillips' job security was discussed daily last year, would exhibit improved play simply from emerging into the sunlight of a new coaching era.

After seeing how the Cats performed in their season-opening loss to Western Kentucky, I now wonder if I underestimated how much psychic damage was done to the Cats during last season's 2-10 slog through hopelessness.

In his weekly news conference Monday, Mark Stoops mentioned his team's "psychology" three times. Count Stoops' comments immediately after Kentucky lost to Western 35-26 last Saturday night Nashville, and the new UK football coach also brought up his team's "psyche" twice.

Even allowing for all the other issues that confront Stoops and his new coaching staff in their effort to get the Kentucky football program back on the rails, I'm not so certain that their most pressing task is not winning "the head game" with their new players.

Several times since he was hired to replace Phillips as Kentucky coach, Stoops has mentioned the need to rebuild the confidence levels of the players he inherited. How difficult that task may be was on full display against WKU.

Kentucky may not have anywhere near the talent level it takes to be competitive against the death march of a schedule it will soon face in 2013, but if one puts any weight in the recruiting star system, Kentucky should have handled Western.

According to the recruiting service Rivals.com, Kentucky's 22 starters against WKU included four two-star players; 17 three-star recruits; and, in junior-college transfer Za'Darius Smith, one four-star.

Conversely, WKU started 13 players who were ranked as two-star recruits, eight three-stars and, in Florida Gators transfer Jonathan Dowling, one four-star.

Yet in the game, Western's players played with the confidence and assurance of a team that had gone to a bowl game in 2012 and seemed to have an expectation of winning.

From blown defensive assignments to a crucial fourth-quarter fumble to a miss on a critical extra-point attempt, Kentucky often seemed just the opposite.

"When bad things happen, we need to handle it better," Stoops said. "Emotionally, I thought we were excited (for the WKU game), and then a few bad things happen, and all of a sudden, everybody's worried about all kinds of things."

To understand how the Cats' psyche got so fragile, look at what they endured last season. At least twice, the 49-7 storm-shortened disaster at Arkansas and the embarrassing 40-0 beat-down by Vanderbilt in an all but empty Commonwealth Stadium, UK more or less did a no-show. Not only did Kentucky fail to win any of its eight SEC games, UK played only one league foe (29-24 defeat to Georgia) within single digits.

The kind of self-doubt generated by a season that rough may not be easily shaken off.

"There's going to be bad things happen," Stoops said. "You have to overcome them, you have to deal with them, and we have to get better."

You need not look back very far in Wildcats history to see the intangible quality UK football has lost.

From the time Rich Brooks' 2006 team rallied in the final minutes to beat Georgia through the 2010 game when Phillips' Cats slew the dragon Spurrier with a final-period charge, UK won 14 games in which it trailed or was tied in the fourth quarter. Included in those 14 fourth-quarter rallies were three victories over top-10 foes, one an eventual BCS champion (LSU in 2007), and road wins at Auburn and Georgia.

The nucleus of Andre Woodson, Wesley Woodyard, Keenan Burton, etc., survived some lean times, learned how to win and helped UK stop playing as if it was doomed by fate. That grit was handed down to the Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Corey Peters core, who kept what became a five-year UK bowl streak going.

However, once the toughness — and the game-altering play-making skills — of Locke and Cobb departed after the 2010 season, UK has been backsliding into poor play and self-doubt.

Starting with Saturday's home opener with Miami (Ohio), that is the process Stoops has to reverse.

"Psychologically, we've got to get them over the hump," said the new Kentucky coach, "and learn how to win and play the right kind of football."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory.Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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