Kentucky football coaches Mark Stoops and Rich Brooks have shared many a good Kentucky bourbon.
With each sip a little more knowledge is distilled.
“There’s a lot of good advice I’ve gotten from Coach Brooks,” Stoops said at the Governor’s Cup Classic luncheon on Tuesday, kicking off the speech season. “We’ve been known to have a few bourbons together, and it gets real deep at that point.”
The thing that sticks with the current Cats coach about Brooks, who was among the UK honorees at the annual charity event at the Frankfort Country Club, is his leadership and how much his previous players and assistants respect him.
“I haven’t heard it lately, but when I first got here they said, ‘You remind me of Coach Brooks,’” Stoops said. “I said, ‘Well that’s a real compliment,’ because I think the world of him.”
Stoops finds himself at a similar crossroads as Brooks did, working to get a struggling Kentucky football team back to winning ways.
Despite the constraints of NCAA probation, Brooks was able to take a similarly struggling Kentucky program and turn it around in year four.
The likes of Andre Woodson, Jacob Tamme, Wesley Woodyard and Keenan Burton were key in getting Brooks through the difficulties, the former UK coach said.
“They did more to protect me than anything,” Brooks said of the nucleus of players that helped Kentucky turn the corner in 2006. “They stood up for our staff and they went out on the field and accomplished things that they knew they were capable of, but had failed at different junctures leading up to that 2006 season.
“That was a watershed year for Kentucky, I think. It showed that we could compete in the SEC and get some things done.”
Do Stoops and UK have that this season in that key 2014 recruiting class that included players like quarterback Drew Barker, Matt Elam, Boom Williams, Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson?
Will 2016 be the watershed year for Stoops that it was for Brooks, who helped the Cats win eight games, their best season in 22 years?
Brooks thinks there are pieces in place for that to happen.
“He’s done a great job of bringing talent into this program, elevating,” Brooks said of Stoops. “He’s put a vision for the program moving forward and it isn’t just a piecemeal deal one day at a time. He’s got a vision of where he wants to take this program and I think he’s got a lot of the building blocks in place to do that.”
One of Kentucky’s biggest problems the past three seasons under Stoops has been a lack of big plays at key times, Brooks said.
He got those from players like Tamme, Woodson and Woodyard.
“Those guys at that right time were great leaders as well as could make plays,” he said. “Kentucky right now under Coach Stoops has a lot of good people in place that they need to have to win, but the critical thing is in the clutch time they don’t have anybody stepping up and making plays.”
That was all too obvious in the second-half collapse against Louisville to end last season which included the Cats losing their 21-0 lead. Or the game against Vanderbilt where Kentucky had more than a few chances to win but couldn’t find a way.
Those clearly still haunt Stoops, who discussed UK’s shortcomings the past few seasons.
“There’s been too many opportunities we’ve let slip away,” he said. “We’ve been close. Our football team is tired of being close; we want to get over the hump. We want to get over the edge and it comes with a lot of hard work.”
Just putting itself in position to get to a bowl game with five wins each of the past two seasons wasn’t enough, Stoops said.
But he certainly finds some motivation moving forward and imagines his players do, too. He hopes it gets them to their own watershed season as Brooks had.
“I think our team can handle more mentally, physically, we’re certainly getting deeper, but we have to push them harder,” Stoops said. “We have to pay the price here in June and July to be able to finish the season and be able to finish games.”
Stoops said Tuesday it’s unlikely Kentucky’s coaches will take part in any more satellite camps. These oft-discussed camps allow coaches to work as instructors on other college campuses.
“We have very strong opinions about that after participating in one. I’m not so sure it’s going to be for Kentucky. I think there are some definite benefits, but I think there are some definite drawbacks.”
Stoops said he doesn’t want to speak for the 13 other coaches in the Southeastern Conference, but said satellite camps have not been beneficial for Kentucky.
“We’re not real big into working third-party people to set things up and paying people to get people on their campus,” he said. “I’m not going to get involved with third parties and pay people to have camps to recruit one player or two players. I’m not going to do that.”
Other items from Stoops’ time at the podium Tuesday included:
▪ Two key players, running back Boom Williams (elbow surgery) and safety Mike Edwards (head injury), are both back and going 100 percent in conditioning.
▪ Kentucky’s players, who all were back on campus as of Monday, had their first official workouts, including an unscheduled players-only workout before Tuesday’s workouts.
▪ Stoops said he expected all of the freshmen from the 2016 class to be on campus on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting and the start of summer school classes.
▪ Junior-college standout Jordan Bonner, who was stabbed this offseason, will not arrive on campus until the end of June as he finishes up some schoolwork.
▪ Kentucky is on track to move into its new practice facility in July as scheduled, Stoops said. “They tell me we’re moving in in July. We’ll be in the new building, and we’re very excited about that. We really appreciate the stadium and how that turned out, and we’re really looking forward to the new building.”
Governor’s Cup Classic
What: Kentucky’s annual football game against Louisville
When: Nov. 26
Where: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville