Is it a business trip?
Is it a pleasure excursion?
Looking at Kentucky’s itinerary leading up to the TaxSlayer Bowl on Dec. 31 in Florida, sometimes it’s hard to tell.
There will be a welcome dinner at a luxury resort with a vast seafood buffet, an excursion to a naval station with a guided tour of ships and helicopters, a few hours at a Top Golf entertainment complex, a pep rally at the pier and a light boat parade.
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Among all of those things will be daily football practices at North Florida University where the Cats, playing in their first bowl game in six years, will prepare for Georgia Tech.
“You have to put it all in compartments and make sure you don’t forget to open one of those drawers,” UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said of trying to find the balance between football and off-the-field fun.
These players have never been in a bowl, but their coaches have, and they’re trying to make sure there’s room in the schedule for both work and play.
“They need to enjoy the experience for sure, but when we get between the white lines, they need to have that attention to detail to help put us in position to win,” Coach Mark Stoops said.
It’s been a regular message that he’s hit the team hard with during the back half of this season: putting in the work Monday through Friday so they can enjoy Saturday.
“I really feel like they’ve bought into that,” the coach told the Herald-Leader.
Stoops worried about refocusing the team and getting players’ attention again after a nearly two-week break after the Louisville win. Coaches went on the road recruiting, and players had finals and last-minute schoolwork to complete.
Stoops said he was pleasantly surprised by the team’s ability to get right back to work.
“I feel like there’s a good, businesslike approach. They’re having fun, competing,” he said. “We’re getting work done. They’re bouncing around, but I feel like we’re practicing better to this point.
“That will be the challenge at the bowl game, too, to go have your fun, but when you get back out here, to focus. I want them to enjoy both. I want them to compete to win, but I definitely want them to enjoy the experience.”
Was getting there enough?
So much of the fans’ focus this season has been about getting to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. Will the players buy into that mentality about being happy to be there, or do they want more?
“You never want to go down and put yourself in a spot where you’ve already achieved a goal,” Barnhart said. “The goal was to get there. No. The goal is to win there.”
The players wanting to win the game won’t be the problem, but will they focus enough on the details to do it?
“Then it just becomes, ‘Can you do both?’ Can you have fun? Yes you can,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “And can you be locked in and focused to go out and take care of your business?”
Finding that balance has been discussed in nearly every position room this week as Kentucky has ramped up bowl preparations and practices.
Co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw noted the challenge of holding the players’ attention.
“These kids have been through how many weeks of constant grind with school, with football practice, with continually going to games, treatment, and there’s only one bye week the whole season?” he said.
“So then you get to the end, great, you go to a bowl and guess what we get to go do it for three more weeks.”
Cornerback Derrick Baity, one of more than a dozen players returning to his home state for the TaxSlayer Bowl, acknowledged that there will be distractions for some of the players.
“I’m going back to my home state and I know a lot of people down there, so it’s going to be hard to balance it all and still be focused enough to get ready,” Baity said. “I still have to focus enough to win.”
Kentucky’s athletic director, who has seen several coaches at several stops try to find that work/fun balance during bowl week, said players have to remember that bowl games aren’t promised.
In its long history, UK has been to just 15 bowl games and has an 8-7 record overall.
“We want to be one of those teams that has one of those wins,” he said coaches remind players. “You’ve got to get to a spot where you say, ‘This is the period we’re going to have some fun. These are the moments we’re going to enjoy being where we are.’”
It’s about playing for the Cats’ seniors, who are playing in their final game in blue and white; and about building momentum for next season for a young team with the bulk of its starters returning.
This game will be about finishing strong, something Kentucky’s coaches have been preaching since spring practices started.
“It’s very important to keep the momentum going,” Stoops said. “Our team has confidence. I think you can see that with the way we’re practicing. That’s what we want, to keep on pushing the program forward.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 31
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4