The roar of the jet engine helped drown out the overwhelming silence.
The quiet ride gave Kentucky’s football players and coaches plenty of time to absorb the loss they’d just experienced at Florida.
“They beat us bad; they beat us so bad,” said UK wide receiver Alexander Montgomery, who was on the sideline for the 45-7 loss at The Swamp on Sept. 10. “That was embarrassing for all of us. They embarrassed us on CBS.”
It was the second straight week of angry, long faces in the Cats’ locker room.
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“We get back to the facility and everybody’s down,” Montgomery continued. “I saw a text that said we haven’t went 0-2 in the last 20 years. … I don’t know how we’re supposed to come back from this. Everybody was thinking it.”
Even Kentucky’s athletics director admitted that he was concerned.
You either fight back to survive or you fight back to win. So when you get hit right in the mouth, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. … We made a decision to do things to win.
He considers himself a consummate, lifelong optimist, but Mitch Barnhart said the 0-2 beginning to the season was far from ideal.
“Did I think it was possible that we could go 7-3 the next 10 games? Anything’s possible, but it didn’t look great,” he told the Herald-Leader recently.
Just a few plays into the third game against New Mexico State, things looked even more bleak.
“We’ve got a young man who has not taken a lot of snaps for us, brand new to our program was now going to be the starting quarterback and we’re a little thin at a couple spots,” Barnhart recalled.
“If you’d said that’s the recipe that we’re trying to bake the cake with, I’m not sure you’re looking at the end product thinking: That’s going to be a dandy.”
But somehow, some way, it has turned into a dandy of a season for Kentucky football, which will take on Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday, the Cats’ first postseason trip since the 2010 season.
The bowl game in Jacksonville is just 74 miles away from where the season looked like it was ending: In a hot, makeshift visiting media area where sweat poured off of Mark Stoops as the head coach opened his news conference. “We got our butts kicked. On offense and defense.”
Where does Kentucky go from here? “Back to work,” Stoops said simply. “There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. We’re in the arena. Time to go to work. That’s where we go.”
Win or lose this weekend at EverBank Field, the turnaround of the program after the 0-2 start will be something discussed for years to come.
How did it happen? When did it turn?
Those closest to the program say the credit goes to Stoops for shining a light forward on what could have been a dark, dark season.
“The best coaching job he did was when we were 0-2,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said of Stoops, his longtime friend. “He wasn’t going to let the outside control our team or control where we were going.”
‘Go to work’
When Barnhart was in the early phases of building the Kentucky athletics department 15 years ago, several meetings with then-president Lee Todd stuck with the AD.
“Dr. Todd was sharing his stories with me about his companies and the startups of his companies and how difficult it was and he told his employees: ‘When in doubt, work,” Barnhart said. “So that’s what I told Mark: ‘When in doubt, work.’”
But Stoops was already hard at work laying the groundwork to a path forward for a team that was having a hard time tuning out the social media gloom and doom.
He’d done it even after that first loss to Southern Miss.
“I grabbed them up; I wanted to see the whites of their eyes, and I told them to stay the course,” he would recall weeks later. “I said, every son of a gun outside of this room right here will be attacking you and me. Put your head down, do your job and go to work.”
Stoops was right. UK players talked about how hard it was to tune out the snide comments around campus and the nasty attacks on social media.
“Some fans kind of turned their backs on us,” cornerback Derrick Baity said last week. “We have to play for each other. If the fans come back, so be it, but we still had to play for each other.”
Defensive end Denzil Ware deleted Twitter off his phone multiple times during the early season struggles.
“It fires me up and then I kind of laugh about it because nobody knows us,” he said in September.
“Nobody knows Kentucky football. Everybody’s got their opinion, but who’s really going to come in here and say it to our face? I really don’t pay attention to none of that stuff.”
It was more difficult for Stoops to tune it out, though. Even after the Cats had managed a win, the coach had a caller on his own radio show lamenting that UK hadn’t hired Tommy Tuberville instead of a first-time coach.
I’m not going to go down easy. I’ll never let somebody in their mom’s basement typing something on a computer dictate my happiness.
Mark Stoops in a recent interview, discussing this season’s low point.
There was more sinister noise, too, including rumors that spread like a virus.
The rumors, which involved Stoops’ family and his job status among other things, even had some fans in the Commonwealth Stadium parking lot the day of the South Carolina game wondering if the coach would be on the sideline that day.
In a recent interview with the Herald-Leader, Stoops admitted that was the lowest point of the season for him.
“I don’t want to elaborate on it,” he said slowly and deliberately.
Stoops had to take the advice he gave to his own players during the struggles and remind himself of it over and over and over again.
“You know the truth and control the things you can control and fight,” he said he told them and himself.
“I’m not going to go down easy,” he said. “I’ll never let somebody in their mom’s basement typing something on a computer dictate my happiness.”
Stoops compared the season’s trials to a boxing match.
“You either fight back to survive or you fight back to win,” he said. “So when you get hit right in the mouth, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. … We made a decision to do things to win.”
His players watched Stoops fighting back. It made them want to fight, too.
Turning the corner
The fighters’ narrative, including Stoops’ regular “don’t flinch” message to the team, resonated with the assistant coaching staff, too.
Co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said he was “pretty upset” after the Southern Miss loss. The Cats thought they had a chance to have a special season and it had gotten off to a not-so-special start.
“He told the team don’t flinch, we’re going to keep working every single week and we’re going to get better and better and better,” Hinshaw said of Stoops. “And we did. Everything he said came to happen.”
Marrow, a former teammate of Stoops’ at Cardinal Mooney High School in northern Ohio, called it “a Youngstown thing.
“He used that phrase and I’d never heard of it, the ‘We don’t flinch’ thing,” Marrow said. “But he didn’t. There are just some guys who listen to all the noise on the outside and they let that rattle them.
“Where we’re from, man, it’s a blue-collar place and that’s who he is, who his dad was in high school. The greatest job he did was not buying into all that crap.”
He told the team don’t flinch, we’re going to keep working every single week and we’re going to get better and better and better. And we did. Everything he said came to happen.
Even when the “toxic, negative stuff” as Stoops referred to it during the season was hitting its crescendo, the head coach never wavered.
Sometimes assistant coaches start worrying about where they’re going to get their next job when the season starts 0-2 and the fans are calling for a head coach’s head.
“If I ever became a head coach, I’d probably learn from what he did,” Marrow said. “He put his head down. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t show that it bothered him. … People are looking at you. Every coach is looking at you and he was the same guy. The same guy.
“We followed his lead. Some coaches would lose their mind over that stuff.”
Stoops took over defensive play calling and focused on building football IQ and other fundamentals like positioning and tackling. There was a simplification of game plans on both sides of the ball.
“He did a great job as a head coach of being able to lead as a football team,” Hinshaw continued.
“And the other thing that he does such a great job of is he talks to the team a lot. You’d be surprised that head coaches don’t always do that. They don’t always talk to their team, but he really has their attention and they listen to him. Again, he did a really good job.”
It wasn’t always easy to hold the team’s attention, Stoops admitted. He would grab them outside meeting rooms and remind them of things he’d already said to 20 guys before that just to make sure they’d heard it.
“‘Look at me. I know you’re tired of this, this and this, but you’re going to look at me; and you’re going to listen,’” Stoops said he repeated with regularity.
The players had had enough. They were good enough and we just had to go produce on the field and do it.
He thanked the players for not tuning him out.
The leadership in the locker room was strong.
“The players had had enough,” Stoops said. “They were good enough, and we just had to go produce on the field and do it. Stay the course and I mean that. It’s not a cliché, it’s the truth.”
After an upset win to end the season, a bowl game on the horizon and a future with a lot more promise than UK felt at 0-2, Stoops was able to exhale deeply.
All of the speeches about “finishing” and finding a way to fight through adversity turned out to be more than just talk.
“If we weren’t mentally and physically tougher, we wouldn’t have made that turnaround,” Stoops said.
“That’s actually exactly what it is. At some point, you either look yourself in the mirror, look at the things you can control, the things you can do better or you cave, you submit. We weren’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to let them do that.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4