On a sunny Saturday high atop Commonwealth Stadium, Mitch Barnhart surveys millions of dollars worth of investment in the Kentucky football program.
The UK athletics director has spent part of his summer doing meet-and-greets with football season-ticket holders on his corner balcony overlooking the brand new, $45 million practice facility on one side and the expansive stadium renovation on the other.
Barnhart thanks the fans for their support and patience.
He is able to point to the nearly $180 million UK has committed to football, helping put Kentucky on more even footing with Southeastern Conference foes in facilities, recruiting and staffing among other things.
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“I want them to understand that we want as much as they do to see Kentucky football win and to win at a high level and compete for bowls and championships and those kinds of things,” Barnhart told the Herald-Leader on Friday. “It is absolutely on our hearts as much as it’s on their hearts.”
For the first time in a long time, Kentucky’s resources match expectations, Barnhart tells visitors.
The program is in its best shape ever except in one key category: victories.
It’s a results business. I get it. You know what I mean? So, we’re going to look for better results and more wins, but I know what we’re doing. I know the state of the program, and I know how hard it is.
So is this the season that Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops and staff have to break through and get to a bowl game for the first time since 2010? Now that all of the pieces are in place, is there a stronger sense of urgency for Kentucky football to be more than 5-7 by the end of Stoops’ fourth season as a head coach?
After all, it was this time four years ago that former head coach Joker Phillips was asked at SEC Football Media Days about his name being on every national “hot seat” list.
“I’m not sitting down right now, so there’s nothing hot,” Phillips joked from the podium. He was fired four months later.
After a 12-24 overall record that has included four SEC victories in three seasons, Stoops is likely to get similar questions this week on that same stage.
His name and face are on multiple hot seat lists and blogs nationally.
The head coach, whose contract commands a hefty $12 million buyout should he be fired after this season, has fielded plenty of hot seat questions worded in creative ways since November when the Cats blew a big lead to Louisville and ended the season yet again a win short of postseason play.
Is 2016 a “put up or shut up” season for Stoops?
“It’s a results business. I get it,” the head coach said. “You know what I mean? So, we’re going to look for better results and more wins, but I know what we’re doing. I know the state of the program, and I know how hard it is.”
Barnhart, his boss, balks at “bowl or bust” questions heading into the 2016 season.
“Everyone knows me well enough to know that there’s no such thing as ‘bowl or bust’ with me,” he said. “Do I want to get to a bowl game? Absolutely.”
But Barnhart knows that a lot can happen from the start of fall camp in August to the final whistle of the Louisville game on Nov. 26. Key injuries at a few positions where Stoops still doesn’t have enough depth are always a concern.
And UK will need some luck on its side, something that doesn’t always seem to be in complete supply.
“I’m hoping that every once in awhile we get a whistle that goes our way, a ball bounces our way, that we get one of those crazy hops and we can pick it up and run for a touchdown,” Barnhart continued.
“We need to have a few of those breaks. Luck follows those who are prepared and I want to make sure that we’re well prepared and ready to go, and then good things will happen.”
‘Transitions we’ve got to make’
The word “FINISH” was on dry-erase boards, posters, locker room doors and countless other places in the old practice facility all spring.
It’s more than an underlying message for a Kentucky football team that has started out strong only to collapse under the weight of a difficult SEC schedule each of the past two seasons.
Barnhart was clear that finishing is on his mind, too.
“We’ve got to find a way to finish,” he said. “That’s important to us. Is that the end all, be all? No. But it sure would be helpful; that would be very helpful to what we’re trying to get done. We’ve got to find a way to finish what we started.”
Less than a handful of players on the 2016 roster were brought in by the previous staff. Nearly every name on the two-deep roster released this week was recruited by Stoops. It’s time for those players to make a difference on the field in what Barnhart called “a difficult set of circumstances” as part of a league “that is unforgiving.
“I want to see young guys we brought into this program that have been here a couple years begin to make plays and understand what it means to lead our team,” he said. “We have to turn that recruiting into plays on the field and wins in the win column.
“Those are things that have to happen. Those are the transitions we’ve got to make.”
I want to see young guys we brought into this program that have been here a couple years begin to make plays and understand what it means to lead our team. We have to turn that recruiting into plays on the field and wins in the win column.
Having a collection of veterans and near-veterans on the field helped Kentucky make strides this offseason, Stoops said. He used the word “capacity” many times in the past few months.
“Our team can handle more mentally, physically — we’re certainly getting deeper — but we have to push them harder,” he said in June. “We have to pay the price here in June and July to be able to finish the season and be able to finish games.”
Spring practices and winter conditioning were more difficult than they’ve ever been, starting quarterback Drew Barker said in June, adding that “everyone is really locked in, more than ever before.”
Barker said he knows fans are restless from the 5-7 seasons, but he believes this is the season that the hard work behind the scenes pays off.
Stoops hopes so, too. If not, he might find himself on more than just a metaphorical hot seat.
“There’s been too many opportunities we’ve let slip away,” he said, specifically mentioning tough losses at Vanderbilt and against Louisville and Auburn, which could’ve changed this offseason conversation considerably.
“We’ve been close,” Stoops continued. “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.”
SEC Media Days
When: Through Thursday.
Where: Hoover, Ala.
Kentucky: UK Coach Mark Stoops and players Jojo Kemp, Courtney Love and Jon Toth speak Wednesday.
Updates: Follow Jennifer Smith on Twitter @jenheraldleader.
2016 UK football schedule
Sept. 3 SOUTHERN MISS
Sept. 10 at Florida
Sept. 17 NEW MEXICO STATE
Sept. 24 SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 1 at Alabama
Oct. 8 VANDERBILT
Oct. 22 MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 29 at Missouri
Nov. 5 GEORGIA
Nov. 12 at Tennessee
Nov. 19 AUSTIN PEAY
Nov. 26 at Louisville