Don’t be surprised to see Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart huddled under a palm tree somewhere in Jacksonville discussing Kentucky’s football contracts and coaching staff.
“Mark and I will sit down and hammer that (out),” the UK athletics director told the Herald-Leader last week. “We might spend some time down in Jacksonville visiting about it. Hopefully, we’ll have a few moments where we can do that in the sunshine somewhere.”
Barnhart made it clear that his goal — and that of UK’s head coach — is to keep the Cats’ coaching staff intact for next season.
“Certainly, I want to keep our staff together,” Barnhart continued. “I like our guys. We’ve got a good group and they’re good. They’re easy to talk to. They’re fun to work with.”
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The market with its various openings always makes the postseason coaching carousel interesting, but Barnhart said the goal is to make sure UK can have some continuity going into next season. He’d like to begin hammering out deals after the Cats’ appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Dec. 31.
“I want to keep them here at Kentucky, but I also want what’s best for them and their families,” Barnhart said. “We’ll try and walk through that.”
According to the USA Today assistant coach salary database, Kentucky’s assistant coaches (which doesn’t include support staff) are the 39th-highest paid staff in the country this season, led by offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s $650,000 a season.
But the Cats’ coaches are among the lowest paid in the Southeastern Conference. Collectively, they made $3.4 million, only above Mississippi State’s assistant coaches, who make a combined $3.29 million. Vanderbilt, a private school, is not included in the analysis.
Among the highest are Louisiana State ($5.78 million), Alabama ($5.32 million), Texas A&M ($4.81 million), Georgia ($4.68 million) and Tennessee ($4.54 million).
Per their contracts, at least two of Kentucky’s assistants are slated to receive raises on July 1, including recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who will make $375,000 and wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas, who improves to $300,000 on that date.
After a massive turnaround for the Kentucky offense, which included completely overhauling the plan after starting quarterback Drew Barker went down with a back injury, Gran stands to get a large bump in salary.
Stoops said they’re already working on the details.
“He and I have talked and we’re both on the same page,” Stoops said last week. “We don’t have everything ironed out specifically at this point, but he and I were on a plane together, traveling a bunch so we’ve been in touch quite a bit.
“We don’t need to talk about it every day. We have an understanding that we’re going to iron something out here pretty quick.”
Kentucky’s hope is to create some continuity with this staff after a hurricane of offseason changes last year, which included Stoops firing offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord.
Shortly after the head coach hired Gran and Darin Hinshaw to run the offense and coach running backs and quarterbacks, respectively, former running backs coach Chad Scott left for North Carolina. Then Stoops hired former Louisville wide receivers coach Thomas to fill that opening.
Shortly after signing day, UK secondary coach Derrick Ansley left for the same job at Alabama and Stoops hired former Cincinnati defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale to fill the role.
During spring practices, special teams coach Andy Buh, who also coached outside linebackers, left to take the unexpected defensive coordinator opening at Maryland. Then Stoops brought in Matt House to coach special teams and defense.
That prompted even more movement in the offseason, which included defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot coaching the outside linebackers and House overseeing the inside linebackers.
‘Our goal was to get to Florida’
In a sitdown with the Herald-Leader last week, Kentucky’s athletics director discussed the process that got the Cats to the TaxSlayer Bowl, which seemed an unlikely destination going into the final game against then-No. 11 Louisville.
“A lot had to happen that last week of the season for us to be in that radius,” Barnhart said of the bowl collective that the Southeastern Conference teams attend.
“One, we had to win. Two, three and four, other people had to lose and all those things happened. It was sort of an interesting convergence of things.”
After the win over the Cardinals, Barnhart and his staff made a list of bowls that seemed best geographically and feasibly for a 7-5 team.
Within that time line, there were bowls reaching out to UK saying they’d like to have the team. Other bowls made it clear they were going a different direction.
Kentucky then sent in its final list to the SEC in order of most desired.
“Our goal was to get to Florida,” Barnhart said. “If we could get there, we wanted to get there. I made that very clear to everyone who came to our games and everyone who called.”
Part of the discussions with the TaxSlayer Bowl officials included the athletics department submitting its marketing plan that it would use to get fans to Jacksonville.
“I told people we’re a fresh face,” Barnhart said of UK, which is going to its first bowl since 2010. “We desperately want to be there. I promised we’d be a good bowl partner and we’ll work really hard.”
Kentucky already has sold out of its initial allotment of tickets (8,000) for the Dec. 31 bowl against Georgia Tech and an additional 1,000 have been sold from the additional tickets made available, a UK official said. Many fans also have purchased general tickets through the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Barnhart added: “They know that our fan base is a unique, special group of people and that’s a really, really cool thing in the bowl world, so that was important.”
Flipping the script?
For the past couple of years, Kentucky’s coaches have spent their December trying to fend off other potential suitors for top players committed to the Cats.
The tables appear to have turned now that the Cats are bowl-bound and have some momentum coming off a win over a top-15 team in Louisville and the Cardinals’ Heisman Trophy winner.
“Now you’ve got that win and they see where the program is going and we’re going after other people’s guys,” UK recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Marrow said.
“It’s a thing where I think most guys were committed somewhere else, but liked us,” Marrow said. “They kept an eye (on us) and were like, let me see what these guys do. Then we beat Louisville and it was like, OK, I think these guys are on the right track now.”
Stoops hinted at that a little bit earlier this month when reporters spotted Lafayette’s Jedrick Wills at the UK practice facility. Wills, a five-star offensive lineman, is committed to Alabama.
“Are you peeking in our indoor?” Stoops laughed. “You know we never stop. We’re never gonna stop. We’re going to make it very difficult for somebody to tell us no.”
Knocking off Louisville gave Kentucky some credibility as it tries to round out the 2017 class, ranked No. 21 by Rivals (ninth in the SEC) as of Friday.
“I see a different pool of guys who are calling us now instead of us trying to beat down these guys’ door,” Marrow said of the Cats’ recent success on the field.
So what’s left for UK moving forward in this class, which has 21 players already and likely won’t go over the 25-commitment ceiling?
“I ain’t going to say no names, but it’s one guy, one dynamic guy that we’re definitely waiting on,” Marrow said with a smile. “He could be in Ohio somewhere.
“But we’ve filled our needs, it’s just now just maybe getting a lineman here, a receiver there, another DB, and d-line.”
Kentucky wants to spend its last four or five spots on what Marrow called “wild cards” and “play-makers.”
“Maybe they’re committed somewhere else, but you just want to say, ‘Hey, look at us and where we at now,’” he said.
News and notes
Kentucky recently announced that it was moving its annual Blue-White spring game from a Saturday in April to a Friday night under the lights.
“We just looked at it and looked at the schedule and talked about getting a night game and hopefully getting some fans in there and some recruits in town,” Stoops said of the game, which will take place on April 14. “It was just a different option and maybe not having as many games on that night as there are the following Saturday.”
▪ In a few months, UK will decide what additional bleacher backs will be added to Commonwealth Stadium, Barnhart said.
“My goal is to continue to add bleacher backs to other areas of the stadium,” he said. “My goal eventually is to have bleacher backs in every area of the stadium. So we’re trying to do that in chunks as we have dollars available in our budget.”
Upgraded video boards and a distributed sound system are two upgrades UK probably will do in the next few years, Barnhart said.