It was late on Sunday night at the football practice facility.
There was no game planning to be done.
The coaching hiring and firing had been completed.
So Kentucky’s Mark Stoops was in the office to simply “get some work done and putz around.”
Turned out D.J. Eliot was doing the same in his office, so Stoops stopped to chat for a while with his friend and defensive coordinator.
“Then next thing you know I hear other guys coming in and it’s Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw,” Stoops said of his latest hires on offense. “Eddie’s got the music playing and it put a big smile on my face. I’m excited and energetic and ready to go. I really feel good about these guys and where we’re headed.”
Stoops hadn’t spoken publicly since he parted ways with one-term UK offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord.
But before introducing Gran, who is now “head coach of the offense” and running backs coach, and Hinshaw, the new co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Stoops discussed what led to the series of events.
What exactly happened between the news conference on Nov. 28 after the Louisville loss when Stoops said he believed Dawson would get things on the right track, and Jan. 4 when Stoops was introducing Gran and Hinshaw as his new offensive gurus?
What changed? Why should fans be as optimistic as the head coach is about the direction of the offense? Is Stoops meddling in the offensive plan too much? And if Gran is so great, why didn’t Stoops hire him sooner?
Stoops provided some answers to those questions and more on Monday afternoon.
What went wrong?
When Stoops walked off the Commonwealth Stadium turf after the Cats’ 38-24 loss to Louisville at the end of November, he had seen the UK offense manage just two first downs, gain 13 yards rushing and compile just 83 yards on 27 plays in the second half.
Stoops was asked about Dawson and his future at Kentucky. That was not the time for assessment, the coach decided.
It’s “not my style to come in here and say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to have somebody take a bullet,’” Stoops said of his about-face on Dawson. “I’ll take the bullet. That’s the bottom line.”
Stoops wanted to spend some time evaluating the program and looking for answers. Once he did that, he realized he wasn’t comfortable with “the overall direction and leadership on that side.”
The play-calling wasn’t necessarily the issue, he said. But getting players motivated to play well and ready to make key plays at key times — think the failure to get into the end zone at Vanderbilt on two separate occasions — seemed to be lacking.
Under Dawson, who texted the Herald-Leader that he had “no hard feelings” toward Stoops and Kentucky after he was let go, the offense took a step back in critical places and at critical times, Stoops said.
That wasn’t acceptable to the head coach.
“I just looked at the state of the program and all areas, I just felt like there was change needed at that position,” Stoops continued.
You can ask the question of either Stoops or Gran, who have known each other since their days as assistant coaches on Jimbo Fisher’s staff at Florida State. They were neighbors and friends. So if they were so close then, why didn’t this seemingly home-run hire happen sooner?
“The big part is timing,” Gran explained simply on Monday.
When Stoops took the job at Kentucky, he talked to Gran about joining him, but Gran joined Tommy Tuberville, someone he’d worked with at several Southeastern Conference stops, instead.
A year ago when Stoops was looking to replace Neal Brown, who left to be head coach at Troy, Gran was a primary target.
“Eddie wasn’t quite ready to come a year ago,” Stoops explained. “He’d only been there two years at Cincinnati with Tommy (Tuberville) and wanted to stick it out.”
This go-around, Stoops made Gran an offer he couldn’t refuse. Although terms of the new deals have not been disclosed by UK yet, former coordinator Dawson made $550,000 a season compared to the $370,000 a season Gran made for the Bearcats.
“After I made the change, I pursued him and I wasn’t going to let him tell me no,” Stoops said.
The chance to return to the SEC and to work for a friend was tough to turn down, too, Gran said.
“It’s a dream to be in this league and be able to compete,” Gran said. “Cincinnati is a great program and it’s going up and it was fantastic, but to have this opportunity to get back with Coach Stoops — our three years at Florida State, knowing him now the last six or seven years — it was the right move.”
Gran persuaded Hinshaw, also a former SEC veteran, to take a long look at UK, too.
“We looked at where are they facility-wise, player-wise, coaches, all the different situations that we looked at and we see Kentucky on the rise,” Hinshaw explained.
Tuberville was a dream to work for, Hinshaw said, which made it a difficult decision for him.
“He treated us unbelievable and let us be able to go in there and run our system and let us be able to do the things we did offensively,” the once record-setting quarterback from Central Florida explained. “Again, looking forward to doing that here at Kentucky.”
Doing their thing?
The autonomy Hinshaw described while working for Tuberville at Cincinnati. Does that actually exist at Kentucky?
Much has been made of whether the Cats head coach has allowed his offensive coordinators to call the shots completely.
When he was let go, Dawson implied to at least one national media outlet that he had a “philosophical difference” with the head coach.
When Stoops was asked Monday about the perception that he’s not on the same page with his offensive coordinators, he said “it’s fair to say.
“Each coordinator that I’ve hired has full autonomy to do whatever they have to do to move the ball,” he said. “One hundred percent, I don’t interfere.”
If there are game management issues, he injects himself into discussions, but other than that Stoops said he gives up full control.
“It’s very, very important that I fix the things I know I can fix,” he said, mentioning defense, special teams, attitudes and more. “But fixing offensive problems, I cannot do. So that is on the offensive coordinator 100 percent and it will be as we move forward.”
Gran seemed to get what Stoops was saying, using similar phrases that the head coach himself had used a few minutes before when Gran wasn’t in the room.
Even though Hinshaw and Gran — like their predecessors Brown and Dawson — would love to run 90 plays a game, they seem content to work within the ebb and flow of the game.
Gran credited Tuberville, also a defensive guy, with helping him understand that balance.
“You’ve got to have an idea of what’s going on out there,” he said of the entire game spectrum. “You want to keep them off balance, you want to go fast and you want to do all that, but I think it’s important to understand what’s going on, too, out there, and who you’re playing.”
If there’s some sort of national knock on Stoops about micromanaging offensive coordinators or trying to call plays, Gran seems unfazed.
He joked that when you start out as a graduate assistant coach who gets blamed for everything, there’s always a part of you that’s fine with being chewed out. Joking: “I don’t have any rear end left.”
What Gran apparently lacks in that body region, he makes up for in body covering.
“I have thick skin, I get it,” he continued. “I love (Stoops’) passion. That’s why I’m here. … To be able to work with Mark and that excitement, I know how he brings it and that’s how we’re going to be also.”
That familiarity with Stoops — and Stoops’ familiarity with Gran — seems to make it such a comfortable fit for both.
“I know exactly what I’m getting with Eddie Gran,” said Stoops, who essentially has hired Gran as an assistant head coach. “That was the big thing: We had a history. We go back.”
The head coach seemed more at ease in this news conference than he had in months. He cracked jokes, smiled a bit, talked about the future with the same sort of optimism he projected on the day he was hired.
“We’ll get it done,” Stoops said. “Believe me, I’m very optimistic. Very excited. There’s always bumps in the road. We’ll get it straight. It’s not easy, but we’ll get it done.”