Kentucky’s football coach went through nearly every stage of grief in succession when he finally sat down and watched the events that got Benny Snell tossed from the Music City Bowl.
“I had a wide range of emotions from severely disappointed, to anger, disgust. You name it, I went through those emotions rather quickly the more I watched it,” Mark Stoops said in a sitdown interview with the Herald-Leader on Friday afternoon.
The Cats’ coach was slightly more measured than he was earlier in the day on a local sports radio show where he called head official Chris Coyte’s dismissal of Snell “absolutely the worst call I’ve ever seen.”
It was difficult seeing the film and feeling like he’d been lied to by Coyte, Stoops said on Kentucky Sports Radio on Friday morning.
Of those five stages of grief — the final being acceptance — Stoops acknowledged that there really isn’t much that UK can do to right what he saw as a clear wrong when the Cats’ star running back was booted in the second quarter for contact with Coyte.
“Being that it isn’t even within our conference, there’s nothing we can do,” Stoops told the Herald-Leader.
If it was within the Southeastern Conference, the head of officials might be able to penalize the offending official by perhaps not letting him officiate a bowl game or moving him down to a low-tier bowl game.
But this was a Pac-12 officiating crew, which means there’s not much recourse for Kentucky following the 24-23 loss to No. 20 Northwestern.
“That’s why I had to bite my tongue for a significant amount of time after the game because I didn’t want to be perceived (as) complaining about calls or anything because calls are going to come and go,” he said. “That’s part of the game.”
Stoops also expressed some disgust with the way the sideline injury to quarterback Stephen Johnson was handled during the bowl game.
Kentucky trailed 17-7 and was inside the Northwestern 30-yard line when Johnson suffered a shoulder injury near the sideline. Stoops wanted to weigh his options about going for it on fourth down with a sub at quarterback or kicking a field goal.
“That was at a critical moment in the game,” Stoops said. “I had a quarterback that was injured 5 feet from the field that was in a lot of pain. And that explanation really disappoints me more than anything.
“I had the options of putting another quarterback in and going for it on fourth down or kicking the field goal. I had to bring them over to show them that Stephen was laid out 5 feet from the field.”
Once he brought the officials over to where Johnson was lying flat on the ground just inches from the playing field, Stoops said he thought they’d stop play as a player safety issue.
Instead, someone on UK’s bench said something the officials didn’t like and the Cats were assessed a 15-yard penalty, killing all options.
“The explanation there was just hard to live with,” Stoops said. “The Benny play gets a lot of attention, but the fact that all of this was going on in the span of five, six, seven minutes was hard to deal with.”
As for his running back, the Cats’ head coach said he stands by him 100 percent and called to tell the sophomore as much a day after the bowl loss.
Stoops said he didn’t want to be perceived as a coach who complains about calls, but he was pleased that Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart put out a strong statement defending Snell.
Another player exits
Little-used Kentucky defensive tackle Ja’Quize Cross announced via Twitter on Friday that he plans to transfer and play somewhere else.
“First, I would like to thank the University of Kentucky staff for blessing me with the opportunity to play for a great university,” he tweeted. “All of the people I have met will forever be my family.”
The redshirt freshman didn’t record a tackle in his two seasons at Kentucky.
On Friday, Stoops said it wouldn’t surprise him to see a few more, but he didn’t name anyone.
“Attrition happens,” he said. “You have to be able to withstand it. Normal attrition happens. We’re dealing with a lot of guys, 105-110 guys on your team.”
Other news and notes
When pressed about the status of outside linebacker/defensive end Denzil Ware, who was suspended from the bowl game for an unspecified violation of team rules, Stoops declined again to comment on the junior’s status in both interviews Friday.
“I cannot comment on that. I cannot. I can’t,” Stoops said on KSR. “I talk pretty openly about things, but I cannot comment on that.”
Ware was able to practice with the team during bowl week and was on the sideline, but not in full uniform or pads, during the game.
▪ Kentucky has at least two juniors that are still considering entering the NFL Draft early, Stoops said, mentioning outside linebacker Josh Allen and safety Mike Edwards by name.
The coach said he’s had repeated long conversations with several players and their families about the prospect of leaving early.
During the KSR interview, he said: “I’ve met and been proactive in meeting with the player and their families, both before the bowl game and since the bowl game, so the big thing for us as head coaches is to make sure you get accurate information to these guys because so many people pull at them and want to give them the wrong information.”
The juniors have until Jan. 15 to declare one way or another. Allen most likely has been busy thinking about other things since he had a son born earlier this week, Stoops said.
▪ Of the Drew Barker departure, Stoops said he got a call from the former starting quarterback and knew the news as soon as he saw the number pop up on his phone.
“I appreciate everything he’s done for us,” Stoops told KSR of Barker, who has graduated and will play his final year of eligibility elsewhere. “He was one of the first big-time recruits to really jump in the boat and get the momentum started, so I’ll never forget that. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Barker suffered a back injury in the early games of the 2016 season, was replaced by Johnson, then had surgery in November of 2016.