KNOXVILLE — Mark Stoops entered the cramped visitors' media room beneath Neyland Stadium, took his usual spot in the chair behind the microphones, faced the inquiring minds that want to know and got real.
"This is not easy," said the Kentucky head football coach, his team having just been beaten to a pulp 50-16 by Tennessee, UK's fifth straight defeat. "Anyone that thought it was, they need to have their heads examined."
It's not easy.
It hasn't been easy for 60 years, not at Kentucky, not in football. Plenty of UK coaches have come and gone over the past six decades, much less in the 30 years since the Cats last won a football game inside Neyland, and they have one thing in common, a period when they have had to reach deep down and say, hold on, contrary to the current evidence, we can make this work.
Stoops and Company are in such a spot. After a 5-1 start, Kentucky is now 5-6. The Cats lost 41-3 at LSU. They lost 20-10 at Missouri in a game that wasn't that close. They gave up 63 points in a 32-point loss to Georgia.
In Saturday's gathering darkness, Kentucky was never really in the game. Tennessee led 14-3 at the end of the first quarter. Tennessee led 30-3 with four minutes remaining in the first half. Tennessee led 43-16 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
"Give them credit," said Stoops of the Vols. "They took care of business."
This is the point where in past weeks, the first-year head coach gave it the "give them credit, but ... " This time, there were no buts. There were no complaints about his team's lack of discipline. There was no ranting about not doing things correctly. There was more a feeling of understanding.
"I'm never going to give them an out," said Stoops of his team. "But we didn't have a lot in our tank."
Here's something to consider: Saturday marked the most points a Kentucky team had given up at Tennessee since 2000, Hal Mumme's final game as the Kentucky coach. And yet, since 1994, it was the eighth time, home or road, in which Kentucky had given up 50 points to the Vols.
In other words, this has been going on for a while. Why just two years ago, the last time these two teams met in Knoxville, Kentucky and Tennessee were both searching for head coaches. Tennessee had just fired Derek Dooley. Kentucky had just fired Joker Phillips.
Tennessee ended up with Butch Jones, the former Cincinnati coach who flirted with the UK opening before signing on with the Big Orange. Kentucky hired Stoops, the up-and-coming former Florida State defensive coordinator.
Jones' program has the obvious upper hand in the progress department, but then he had a head start. After all, Tennessee won that 2012 game 37-17.
As for Kentucky's situation, what's needed right now is context. And resiliency.
"You have to have a long-term focus all the time," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown. "I think that's — you don't wanna — and we talked about this last year — you don't wanna scrape, you don't wanna start fishing for answers, because when you do that, especially with a young football team, that's when you get away from fundamentals and you lose details and you really waste time.
"So you've gotta have a long-term focus and a belief in what we're doing, and I do. I believe wholeheartedly in what we're doing. I believe in our staff. We just gotta figure out this week, get 'em well, get a great plan together for Louisville and get back.
"That's the great thing about playing our biggest rival the last game. It gives you an opportunity to finish the season on a positive note."
Said Stoops, "As I've said over and over, I know what we're in for and I'm proud of the work that our players have done. We've got a bye and we've got a big game left with our archrival. We have two weeks to prepare and I expect us to give everything for that last game."
Beating Louisville won't be easy either, of course. But then no one said it would be.