MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Mark Stoops is next, the head coach at the University of Kentucky.
COACH STOOPS: Thank you, Greg. I appreciate it. Good afternoon. It’s great to be here. Like everybody said, it’s an exciting time of year. It’s always nice to be here in Hoover and kick off the season. Thank you for what you do to promote the University of Kentucky and what you do to promote our league.
Greg, I like to thank the commissioner on behalf of the University of Kentucky for your decision to recognize the four players that played at the University of Kentucky that broke the color barrier in the SEC some 50 years ago. We appreciate that.
Like everybody says, it’s an exciting time of the year. I’m excited about our football team. I’m excited about our season. It’s really nice to come in here year five and build with some positive momentum that we had a year ago. You know, a year ago, we did not start the season the way we wanted to, but we finished strong when seven of our ten regular season games, and you know, to build on that positive momentum, to go to the TaxSlayer Bowl, to have those extra practices meant a great deal to our program.
Our players have worked extremely hard to get to that point, and it was really nice to finish with that momentum. If you heard me talk a year ago, you heard me constantly talk about our capacity to do more. Our team needed to mature. We needed to work them harder. We needed to have stronger weightlifting sessions, run harder, longer practices, mentally and physically, to be able to endure the rigors of an SEC season.
And it was really nice to see that come to fruition a year ago, for us to finish the way we did, culminating with a big victory against a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, our arch rivals on the road against a ranked opponent, beating Louisville to propel us to the TaxSlayer Bowl. So that was a really, really exciting time for us.
This year, much the same. We feel like we have an experienced football team. We’re returning 17 starters, nine on offense, eight on defense. And the maturity level of your team is getting better. They can handle more. So it will be much of the same this summer, push them harder and be more consistent.
I think that’s the biggest thing with our program is consistency, our attention to detail. Our players are doing that. And we’re ready to take it to the next level. Again, each and every year I’ve been here, we talked about build, select, develop. And that’s building a winning culture, selecting the right players and developing them and have an intentional development plan once they get on campus.
I can’t think of a better example than the three players I have with me today. You will get a chance to spend some time with, but they really embody what we’re looking for at the University of Kentucky. That’s quarterback, Stephen Johnson, safety, Mike Edwards, and linebacker, Courtney Love. They’re incredible players, but they’re even better people, and they’re great leaders. And, again, we’re very proud of those guys. I’m excited for you to get a chance to spend some time with them here in a little bit.
Our staff, I’m very excited about our staff. For the first time in a while, it’s really nice to have our offensive staff come back completely intact, continue to build on some of the good things we did a year ago. I was very proud of the way we adapted.
We lost our starting quarterback the second game of the year, came in with a back-up who’s here with us today and again led us to seven victories down the stretch and really starts with Eddie Gran. I really appreciate Eddie. He’s a seasoned veteran, spent a lot of time in the SEC prior to coming to Kentucky. Eddie’s a great person. He’s a great X-and-O guy. But more important, he’s a great leader, a great leader of men in developing these young guys and developing an attitude on the offensive side of the ball. I am very proud to have Eddie with us, along with co-offensive coordinator,
Darin Hinshaw. Again I just mentioned it, but Darin did a heck of a job with Stephen Johnson to put us in a position to be successful, along with the rest of the offensive staff, very proud of those guys.
Also on the offensive stat of the ball, I got to mention our recruiting coordinator, Vince Marrow. I’m proud of our entire staff the way we recruited. Vince heads up that effort. He has done a great job in Ohio. We’re really stepping up our recruiting and Vince is a big piece of that. We appreciate him.
On the defensive side of the ball, we have promoted Matt House to defensive coordinator. It will be a lot of fun for me. It already has been. It will be a collaborative effort with myself, Coach House, and the defensive staff to tweak our defense. We’ll be much the same. We will continue to build on the good things that we’ve done, but we’ll also strip it down and start over in certain areas.
And I’m excited to work with Matt. And we have two new additions on the defensive side of the ball. Derrick LeBlanc will coach our defensive line. He’s already improved them. I like what I’ve seen in the preseason, what I’ve seen in the spring ball. He has a big job. We all know that we all need to improve. That’s one area we need to improve. And I’m counting on Derrick and our defensive staff and all of us to get those guys to play at the level that we expect them to.
Also the addition of Dean Hood, Dean will coach our outside linebackers and special teams. Dean has a wealth of experience. He’s been a head coach. He has been a defensive coordinator. He’s another seasoned veteran. We are very proud to have Dean on our staff. He also knows the state of Kentucky. He’s been the head coach at Eastern Kentucky for quite a while. So we are very excited to have him and his expertise.
It’s an exciting time. Our players have worked extremely hard. I just mentioned our consistency through the winter. We’re more mature. We’re a stronger football team. Things are going exceptionally well through the summer. We’re optimistic. We’re excited. And we’re ready to get going. So, with that, I’ll be glad to open it up for questions.
Q. You alluded to Stephen. I mean, how much did he surprise you last year, and just what are you looking for from him moving from last season to this season?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah. We’re very proud of Stephen. I don’t want to use the word “surprised,” but I would like to use the word “pleased” with his progress. He got thrown into the fire. Getting thrown into the fire at the swamp when
Drew Barker got hurt, it’s not exactly the way you want to go into it. But the great thing about Stephen, and you’ll get a chance to visit with him, is he has a great demeanor about him. He’s never too high, never too low. He’s constantly trying to get better. And he has a very good poise.
What I like about the way he played, even in some good times and some bad, at the end of the day, just about each and every game he started, he gave us an opportunity and put us in position to win the football game.
Q. You mentioned that recruiting success in Ohio. So, what’s been the key, or what are the things that have helped you had success in what is obviously a very good high school football stadium?
COACH STOOPS: I know we’re in the deep south here, and we respect that, and we need to and will and continue to recruit in the deep south playing in the SEC. But for us, it just makes sense with our proximity to Ohio. Southern Ohio butts up to us. You can go two and a half hours of our campus, and there’s a heck of a lot of football players in that region.
With my ties, I grew up in Ohio. My father was a high school teacher and coach for 30 years in Ohio. With myself, Coach Marrow, Coach Clinkscale, there are quite a few ties to the Ohio area within our staff. I think that is a big reason. I think the SEC is a selling point for guys that grew up in Ohio and respect SEC football. I think they embrace the opportunity to come down here and play in this league.
Q. Mark, speaking of recruiting, do you think it is easier to recruit offensive players to Kentucky right now, their defensive guys?
COACH STOOPS: No. No, I really don’t think so. I am sure. You’ve maybe done the research as far as offensive guys versus defense. I really haven’t to this point, but we recruit the very best players we can and get the best players we can. If it’s happened that way, then that’s the way it’s gone down, but we’ll continue to recruit some very good players on the defensive side of the ball from Ohio as well.
Q. I was wondering if you can elaborate some on Stephen. What makes him a really good quarterback and what makes it tough to defend him?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah. I think, number one, just like everybody in our program, he’s constantly trying to learn and get better, and that’s what we’re looking for. So he’s very critical from -- of himself, but he’s also very poised and very confident.
I think, you know, that position comes with a lot of instincts. I think Darin Hinshaw, our quarterback coach, and Eddie Gran have done a nice job. If you watched us evolve last year, we leaned heavier on the run game and play-action pass. I think Stephen was very efficient in throwing play-action pass and throwing the ball down the field.
I think probably a lot of quarterbacks will say if you got a running game going, it will set up some pass. But I just think his poise, I think he’s made good decisions in the pocket with pulling the ball down, scrambling. I think if you watched some of our close games last year, some of our victories, he made critical plays by any means necessary. And that’s a winner. Whether he pulled it down and ran or scrambled to buy time to throw the ball down the field or just be efficient and improving his passing game, his accuracy, all those things. He’s a good player. Stephen will tell you he’s got a lot of work to do to improve, and he intends to do that this summer.
Q. Mark, I know you’re pretty good friends with Bret Bielema. Did you give him any advice or talk to him at all about being a first-time father?
COACH STOOPS: I did. I did, in fact. He’ll never admit this, but he actually called me a couple days before the baby was born, and we were actually talking about some other things relating to the family. But baby advice, no. It’s been a while since I changed a diaper. But I can’t wait to see him. I think the first two years I came to this event, it was nice that I was here at the same time Bret as here, and he and Jen, I’ve known them for some time. And to go into the waiting room, they’ve always had their two dogs. You heard me comment on that before. But it will be nice to see their baby hopefully next year because I was tired of seeing these two tiny little dogs for such a big fella.
Q. Mark, can you just talk about the first conversation you had with Bob when he came to you about retiring and kind of your thought on that whole thing?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah. You know, obviously, it’s one of those moments kind of you won’t forget because he called me and it came out of the blue. I had really no idea it was coming, but he called me and told me what was going to happen in the future, in the very near future. And it was a bit of a shock to me to be honest with you. I had to walk out of my office and walk around the practice field. And that’s where I had that conversation with him away from everybody. So I was shocked. Mixed emotions, I guess you would say from myself. Very proud of him, what he’s done, and very happy for him and Carol and his family, to be able to step away when he wants, how he wants. And that’s Bob. You know, not -- I don’t know, you all could write about it or do the research. I don’t know how many people have done that, but that’s -- that’s kind of him. He walks away when he wants to do it, on his terms. And I think it was very important for him to walk away with a good football team with a chance to win his league and get in the playoffs and hand off a program that he took so much pride in building. So I have mixed emotions about it still, but proud of him and hope the very best for him.
Q. You guys start out 0-2, lose 45-7 at Florida?
COACH STOOPS: Thanks.
Q. What’s kind of the state of the mindset of the program at that point yourself and how do you keep that from going into a tailspin there?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah. It was a very, very difficult time because just as we’re here now, you open the season with a lot of optimism. You’re very excited. Players have worked hard. And certainly, I think, year four is very hard as coaches as in the position that I was in. As you’re rebuilding a program, as you’re trying to rebuild a program in the SEC, what you’re here for, it’s nut cutting time. You know? People were tired of hearing you’re getting better.
They see the progress. They see the way you recruit. They see you the way you talk about selecting players and developing players, and you see progress on the field, but it’s about wins and losses. And so that is a very critical time. There’s no denying that. But I’m also very proud of that. I’m very proud of our coaches, and I’m very proud of our team because under the immense pressure that you get at that point in your program, in your system, you have to be able to withstand that, and you have to be able to respond.
And I was very pleased with our team. And I don’t know if there’s anything magical or special that I could comment on. It’s about doing the things that we’ve done, believing in the good things we were doing, always adapting the change and doing the best we can. We’re in a learning environment. We try to get better every day, but it’s about the leadership of our coaches and our players to get back on the practice field and put their head down, go to work, and eventually good things are going to happen.
Q. Was there a turning point in the game, moment in the game, to kind of move things in the other direction?
COACH STOOPS: I don’t know if there was a turning point. I know it was very important. I think it was game four, South Carolina at home. We won game three, but looked very bad doing it at times. And I think game four we turned the corner with the win against South Carolina and our team, you know, took it just like we talked about, took it one day at a time, one game at a time. And we certainly got better.
And again I take pride going back to the things that we had talked about and we had emphasized was building that capacity to handle that pressure, to mentally handle what’s going on, to physically be able to endure the tough season and build our depth and build our strength and build our mental capacity. And sure enough, that’s what it took for us to finish and get stronger as the year went on.
Q. Coach, I just wanted to ask, just to follow up with the Florida question, are your kids aware — I know it’s been like 30 years since they’ve beaten Florida, and how close are you, not just to Florida, but overall in the SEC East, how close do you think you are to contending for the division?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah. I think our players are probably well aware of that, because what we’re a month or two months away from playing Florida. And it’s getting talked about right now. So I think they’ll hear that a few times between right now and the time we play them. So, we don’t hide from that, but it’s not something I talk about.
I haven’t been here for 30 years. We’re trying to build the program and do what we’re doing. These players haven’t been there. They care about what’s going on right now. They believe in what we’re going to do today and what we’re going to do this week to get better and put us in position to win every game, let alone the Florida game.
So we can’t control that. We can just control what we’re doing to get better. What was the second part of that?
Q. How close you are to contending?
COACH STOOPS: Oh, how close we are to contending? You never know. You guys covered this league for a while. You’ve seen — I remember a few years back, I believe the team that won both sides didn’t win a league game the year before. We are not concerned about the rest of the league. I know this about the league, the league’s not backing up. Nobody we’re playing is backing up. We’re certainly not backing up. We’re worried about us getting better to put us in a position to contend each and every week.
Q. What did the Louisville — beating Louisville in the regular season game of the year, how did that translate into the offseason for your team?
COACH STOOPS: Positive momentum. It was very important. I make no bones about that. We talked about it. We needed to get better as a program to put ourselves in a position to win that game. Ironically, if you look at the two games prior to this past year, we were in a better position to win the game and couldn’t finish it, couldn’t win the game. Last year is a little bit of a reversal. So, it’s a rivalry game. We have great respect for Louisville, but we’re getting better. It’s important — that win was important to our fan base. Our fan base has been patient to some extent, but they’ve -- you know, they’ve waited a long time. And I take great pride in being the head coach at the University of Kentucky. I take great pride in trying to deliver for our fan base that has been starving for a successful, consistent football team for a long time.
I think they respect the process in which we’re going about it right now, but a win like that certainly helps for our fan base. I know it helps for our players. Our players deserve it. They’ve worked extremely hard. They paid the price. We put ourselves in a position to win that game and the ball bounced our way that day, and we’re going to continue to get better.
Q. Coach, this may not be something coaches concern themselves with while the game is going on, but there is an effort in a lot of different sports to shorten game times. And the league said they were going do some administrative things to try to shorten the window a bit, but they’re not going to do any rule changes such as not stopping the clock after first downs. First of all, do coaches kind of sweat about that possibility in the future and really dread it? And the other thing is, if there were rule changes made, does college football have to be like the NFL in that respect? Do you think you’ve got a game that’s played by a little bit different set of rules that make it unique and do you want to keep it that way?
COACH STOOPS: No. I think definitely our game is much different. If you think about the NFL, their season is so long. Their games are shorter, but they also don’t have as many players on their roster as we do. So I think that’s a totally different situation with leagues. As far as my opinion on it, I’m all for it without changing, without changing the time, as you mentioned. I think if we can be more efficient at leaving the sidelines, you know, have quicker reviews, maybe not as many long TV timeouts, which we all know that revenue is very important, so there’s a balancing act that I’ll let the people above my pay grade make those decisions. But if you’re just asking me about the time of the games, I think I would be in favor of it if you’re talking 15 minutes or so without changing the structure of a football game. I like the way it’s played right now.
Q. Mark, how have you seen Courtney Love improve over the year as he kind of wore off some of that rust from the transfer season?
COACH STOOPS: He’s getting better every season. Courtney is one of those guys, it’s extremely important to him. What’s so unique about him is it’s so important to him because it affects other people, not about himself. He wants to be successful because he wants his team to be successful. Anybody that has a heart like that is going to get better and play to the best of his ability. And I can’t tell you the affect he has on our football team, not only between the white lines, but when we’re off the field.
Q. Mark, you guys have a lot of starters back. How do you feel like you can build on the strong finish you had moving into this season?
COACH STOOPS: It gives us an opportunity, if we do all the things necessary that I talk about every day. You know, as I tell our team, if we attack every day, I said that the first day I was on campus my first press conference, we’re going to attack every day. That was my mantra from day one. We’re going to continue to do that. You don’t hear a lot about it because we haven’t been relevant enough in the SEC to this point. We’re gaining on it. We are getting better. We’re getting in position to compete for the East. And our football team deserves that. If we go about that with that mentality, stay hungry, stay consistent, it’s all about connecting the dots. And our players are starting to understand that. You know, you can’t go from 0 to 60. It’s connecting the dots, doing the things necessary, and being consistent and being redundant with that to put yourself in position to win games. As we’re talking about the Florida game, it’s about what we do this week. It’s about our preparation. It’s about how they attack this week as we’re getting in the critical moments here in the dead of summer, how hard are we training, what is our attention to detail, what is the leadership like when coaches aren’t around. As we improve in that area, we’ll improve with wins and losses.
Q. With regards to the new rule about how far coaches can go out on the field, will you have a get-back guy, and how aware will you have to be, coaches in general have to be about that rule going into this season.
COACH STOOPS: You had to go there, John? I’m not the only one. Yeah. I think it’s important. I think it’s important to have somebody, yes, to monitor me. It’s been habit for us, you know, to be on the field. Certainly as I’m involved with defense or trying to get ahold of personnels or talking with the defensive guys, that’s when you seem to me out there more than just trying to dispute a call. But that’s going to be a rule change that I know I’ll have to pay attention to, yes.
Q. How have you guys improved up front defensively? I know that was an issue last year.
COACH STOOPS: Yeah, I think it’s — there’s no magical formula. It’s recruiting very good players and it’s working the heck out of them and fundamentally playing better. We have to look at all of — everything we’re doing as coaches to put them in a position to be successful, and that’s always a fine line and a balancing act, all of the way back — I’ve been a coordinator long before I’ve been a head coach, and there’s always been a fine line there between doing too much and fundamentally getting better, and I’ve always been of the belief to just do what you do and get better and better and better at it and fundamentally play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. But with so much offense, so much going on, with maybe some deficiencies you have, you put new things in and you put some defenses in, and you have to make sure you have that right balance.
But to answer your question specifically, it’s about fundamentally putting in some work this summer, getting stronger. And then when we get in camp, developing those guys the way I expect them to.
Q. Mark, what did you guys do to prepare for Georgia Tech’s triple option, and was it advantageous at all that you had a few weeks to prepare for that?
COACH STOOPS: It’s very difficult. Anybody that’s ever played the triple option will tell you that, because it’s so different and so unique, so it was a real challenge. I have great respect for Coach Johnson and Georgia Tech and what they do. It was my last game at Florida State as defensive coordinator prior to taking this job. It was difficult then. It was difficult for us. I would say that’s the only negative experience. The outcome of the game didn’t come out the way we wanted to. I wish we had played better. We look to get back this year and play better in a bowl game. That’s the only drawback. We lost all of those practices getting our program better in the future and having it just specifically work on that unique offense. So, it’s very hard to simulate that for your scout team. And as you can see through the numerous injuries we had throughout the game, it’s very difficult for our D line to be totally prepared for how quickly and how efficient they are at what they do.
Q. Mark, I wanted to get your thoughts on a couple of things. First of all, the blocking of transfers by head coaches when players go to transfer, blocking them from certain schools, just your thoughts on that and how fair it is, if you see maybe changing the rule. And, secondly, when it comes to football budgets and spending, you are obviously on the low end of SEC schools, how do you combat that as a head coach?
COACH STOOPS: I think with the transfer rule, if a player wants to transfer because of academic reasons and go to another school, if they graduated and you don’t offer the program that they want, then let them go. You know? Let them go to the school that they want.
I think there’s — within our league, I think us coaches are — don’t want to — the transfers to happen within our league just simply because it’s getting to be a free agency. If it’s about academics, then by all means go for your education at some school, and I think there’s plenty of schools outside the SEC that they can further their education. I might suggest that if they want transfer for academic reasons, maybe redshirt them and give them two years. Maybe redshirt them the first year and let’s let them sit out two years. It’s not free agency. It’s an opportunity to further their education. So let’s sit them out and let them sit two years instead of one.
MODERATOR: And the second part of that.
COACH STOOPS: The second part of that. Combatting it. It’s an arm’s race that -- it’s very important, but I pick and choose our battles and what’s important. And all of our schools are unique to our situation and we play within the rules that are provided, and we’re doing the very best to get up to par in all areas within the SEC. Certainly, I think if you look at personnel, yeah, I would agree with you that we’re far behind the rest of the league with personnel, and we’re working on trying to improve and getting as much support staff as we can to help combat the guys that we compete against.