UK Football

Mark Story: Why Mark Stoops’ job is all but totally safe for 2 more years

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops in the second half. The University of Kentucky hosted the University of Louisville, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops in the second half. The University of Kentucky hosted the University of Louisville, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Herald-Leader

As frustrating and unfulfilling as Kentucky’s 2015 football season turned out to be, retaining Mark Stoops as UK head coach is the right thing to do.

Both as a matter of fairness and because Stoops has done good things for UK football off the field, he deserves more time.

Which is good, since the contract extension UK granted Stoops last year would make it prohibitively expensive to remove the third-year head coach anyway.

According to the deal signed by Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Stoops last Oct. 29, if UK were to fire the coach without cause before Dec. 1, 2017, it would owe him all the remaining salary in a contract that runs through June 30, 2020.

So if UK fired Stoops now, it would owe him $15.5 million.

Some people say Stoops, now 12-24 (4-20 in SEC games) in three seasons at UK, must have a winning season in 2016 to keep his job. As a certain former Louisville coach is wont to say: Not so fast, my friends.

If UK has a fourth straight losing season next fall, terminating the coach’s deal after the 2016 season would still cost Kentucky some $12 million.

Even for a school flush with $EC Network cash, paying someone $12 million not to coach would be a heavy lift.

Barnhart, in particular, must be sick over what happened with Kentucky football this season.

UK had the excitement of a plushly renovated Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky had eight home games. The Cats played against a schedule where, in my view, eight of Kentucky’s 12 foes turned out not to be as good as they were expected to be in the preseason.

It was a season offering Stoops the chance to turbo-charge his rebuilding program.

Instead, Kentucky regressed. After a 4-1 start, UK lost six of its last seven games. The Cats went 5-7 for a second straight year.

Coaching decisions played a large role in a dispiriting loss at Vanderbilt. In Saturday’s regular-season finale, failure to match Louisville’s halftime adjustments helped a 24-7 UK halftime lead end in a 38-24 U of L victory.

Since coming to Kentucky in 2002, Barnhart has in some ways been the best AD UK has ever had.

He’s built Kentucky into something it has never really been: a comprehensive SEC-level athletics department. For the resources and emphasis he’s put into women’s sports, Barnhart deserves to be considered the best friend Kentucky’s female athletes have ever had.

Yet football has caused Barnhart heartburn.

His first season as AD saw the popular Guy Morriss bolt UK off a 7-5 season for a more lucrative offer at Baylor. The ensuing hire of Rich Brooks was not popular. For some 3 1/2 years “Ditch Mitch and Rich” was a not-infrequently seen local bumper sticker.

To his credit, Brooks surmounted doubt and eventually made Barnhart’s hire look good by leading UK to four straight bowl games.

However, Brooks’ chosen successor, Joker Phillips, did not keep the momentum going, dropping from 6-7 to 5-7 to 2-10. Barnhart was close with Phillips personally, which made having to fire Joker during the coach’s third season painful for the AD.

The choice of Stoops which followed, however, was the best received football hire of Barnhart’s tenure.

Based on the football credibility that attaches to the Stoops name and the pedigree he brought as a Florida State defensive coordinator, UK fans invested ample hope in their new coach.

Stoops did some impressive off-the-field work. He tapped some of the big-money boosters who have long supported Kentucky basketball and got them to invest in football. His recruiting classes have been ranked higher than what Kentucky had achieved in recent vintage.

So the decision last year to give Stoops salary bumps and such large contract buyouts did not happen in a vacuum.

Had Kentucky gone 8-4 this year, that move would have looked farsighted — especially with so many attractive head coaching jobs coming open.

Instead, the Cats melted down. UK will go into 2016 with no proven quarterback and will face a schedule that, on paper, looks more difficult than this year’s.

So now those big buyouts in Mark Stoops’ contract look a bit scary.

Should Kentucky buy out Stoops after the 2017 season, it would “only” cost the university 80 percent of the coach’s remaining salary. That’s still some $6.6 million.

When UK said it was going “all in” with this football coach, it meant it.

Mark Stoops’ contract terms

2016 $3.5 million

2017 $3.75 million

2018 $4 million

2019 $4.25 million

Buyout clause

If UK terminates Stoops without cause before Dec. 1, 2017, it owes the coach all the remaining salary in the contract. If UK fires Stoops between Dec. 1, 2017, and Nov. 30, 2018, the university owes the coach 80 percent of his remaining pay. If Kentucky ousts Stoops after Nov. 30, 2018, it owes the coach 60 percent of his remaining pay.