Mark Stoops feels a lot of things about the way Kentucky’s football season ended with a whimper and a thud.
To use the Kentucky coach’s own words, he feels “frustrated” and “pissed off” after his Cats finished a second straight season with a 5-7 record and no bowl game.
But one thing he doesn’t feel is defeated.
Never mind that UK lost six of its last seven games or that it coughed up a 21-0 lead at home to its biggest rival to end the year.
“I absolutely, firmly know that we can build a winner here and that we will and that our time will come,” Stoops said in a sit-down interview with the Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal of Louisville on Tuesday.
“Nobody is more pissed off when you see bad football on the field than me. I know very clearly what good football looks like. I’ve seen it up close and personal for a long time. We’re going to get that done here.”
In the season wrap-up interview in his office, Stoops discussed a wide range of topics, including Kentucky’s offensive problems, potential staff changes, special teams difficulties, a “home run” recruiting weekend, facilities and more.
Mostly, though, Stoops wanted to discuss the future and what he thinks Kentucky can build on, even as he acknowledged a long history of losing football.
“I understand the frustration, because I feel it, too,” he said, adding that he knows Kentucky underperformed this season.
“We’ve been in this battle since Bear Bryant,” he said of trying to turn around the Kentucky football program. “What, we’re going to stop now? That’s my plea: Let’s continue to push forward. I understand our frustration. I accept the responsibility that I have to do things better. We will.”
Fans see a shiny, renovated Commonwealth Stadium and dollar signs in front of amounts like $45 million for the new practice facility UK moves into in July.
And they expect change. Yesterday.
It hasn’t come at that clip. Stoops is 12-24 in three seasons of rebuilding. The margin for error was slim, he said, holding his thumb and index finger about an inch apart.
“We had some exciting times, some exciting moments,” he said. “That’s what I want to continue to have — exciting times, exciting moments — but we weren’t good enough to sustain it.”
Kentucky is getting better, the coach said, even if a few plays here and there this past season left the records looking remarkably the same as the season before.
“We’re definitely a better team; we’ve just got to continue to push,” he said. “We still need (fan) support or it’s not going to happen. We’ve been in this battle since 1953 to have a consistent winner. That’s what I plan on doing. I’m not going anywhere.”
For the purpose of perspective, only Rich Brooks had four straight winning seasons since the times of Bryant. Only 10 times since Bryant left Kentucky in 1953 has UK won seven or more games in a season.
That’s 10 times in 62 seasons.
“I get it,” Stoops said. “I know the things we could do better, but you still got to also understand our margin — everybody makes mistakes. You’ve got to be good enough to overcome them. That’s where we’re trying to get to.”
The second half of the Louisville game — or, more than anything, several plays in the Vanderbilt game that wake him up at night — made the difference between a disappointing season and UK’s first bowl appearance since 2010.
“We’ve got to start making those plays,” Stoops said. “That’s the key for us. … But we’ll find the ways to make those inches and those yards and do everything we can to make those plays.”
As he sat in his office Tuesday afternoon with sun filtering in through the blinds, Stoops looked down at several pieces of paper containing the names of UK’s returning players, including ones he believes will make an impact.
There have been many of those kinds of players in the past couple of recruiting classes, with more to come in a 2016 group he said could be “a very special, significant class.”
But to keep getting recruits and to keep building, he also needs fans to come back to the stands. The head coach got to sit among them with recruits this past weekend in Rupp Arena.
He hopes UK football will give them something to cheer about in 2016.
“I feel the passion, I see their energy, and I know they feel the same way about football; we just haven’t delivered the product that we need to,” he said.
But he believes Kentucky will get there.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re trying to get to there and working our tails off to get that done, and we will. We will.”