John Clay

John Clay: Stoops must balance expectations with reality

Coach Mark Stoops wants fans to be excited but in the same breath said, "Most people understand where we're at as a program and where we want to get to."
Coach Mark Stoops wants fans to be excited but in the same breath said, "Most people understand where we're at as a program and where we want to get to." Herald-Leader

Step one, home run.

Now comes the tricky part, avoiding the knockdown pitch.

Give Mitch Barnhart a back pat. Roasted by hardcore football fanatics for the program's decline under previous head coach Joker Phillips, UK's athletics director flipped the script by tabbing a Florida State defensive coordinator who had never been a head coach. So far, it has proved to be an inspired choice.

Mark Stoops hit the ground attacking. He's recruited beyond expectations. He's pumped oxygen beyond expectations into a deflated fan base. He's provided hope beyond expectations.

If John Calipari was what UK basketball needed after Billy G., then Stoops has been just what UK football needed.

Their presentations couldn't be more different either. Calipari is the constant showman, never too far out of the news, whether it be putting together an alumni game or launching a clothing line. Stoops seems basically shy, a little nervous, and very real. He comes across as, well, a football coach. In this case, that's a good thing.

As fall camp gets rolling, however, UK's off-the-field enthusiasm meets on-the-field reality.

This Kentucky football team was 2-10 a year ago. It was one of two SEC teams not to win a conference game. Stoops may have supplemented the roster with promising newcomers, but Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither are winning SEC football programs.

Toss in a schedule just this side of illegal. Alabama. Georgia. South Carolina. Florida. Vanderbilt, a team that has waxed UK to the tune of 78-8 the past two seasons. Sugar Bowl champion Louisville. Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky.

Plus, those heralded recruits don't arrive until 2014. Drew Barker will be the senior quarterback for Conner this season, not UK. Stanley "Boom" Williams will be turning swing passes into touchdowns at his Georgia high school, not Commonwealth Stadium. Not yet.

The key for Kentucky in 2013 isn't picking a starting quarterback or developing depth at wide receiver as much as it will be managing expectations.

The practical fan will anticipate hard knocks. For the unrealistic, a letdown looms.

"I think the educated fan knows our situation," Stoops said at the SEC Football Media Days last month.

Never mind the cynic who wants real numbers on "educated fans."

The coach got the same expectation question at Monday's UK Media Day.

"Yeah, I think we're all excited," he said. "I want the fans excited about what we're doing. I want the fans excited about the hard work these players have done.

"Again, I've said that before. I think that, you know, most people understand where we're at as a program and where we want to get to. We have a lot of work to do, and we're excited about it."

In other words, no sense raining on the parade just yet. Keep calm and attack the day.

Monday question: "What will make the first season a success?"

Stoops answer: "Just improvement. Drastic improvement."

Good answer. Meaningful victories would be nice. An attention-grabbing upset could accelerate the rebuilding process. But this season, the scoreboard won't tell the whole story.

Stoops is operating from the wrong end of a talent gap. It's the reason he got the job in the first place. Stoops wants a team that is enthusiastic, tough and competitive. He wants a team that if outnumbered, is not overmatched.

There is a chance, of course, that all the good vibes will have a carryover effect, that perhaps the feel-good Cats could squeeze out another win or two by way of a better mental frame of mind that could come from performing in front of actual fans in the stands.

Look at it this way. Last year during these early days of August, UK had a football coach facing a countdown clock, one who needed wins.

This year, UK has a football coach who most believe just needs a little time.

6 p.m. Friday:

Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium

Season opener: Aug. 31 vs. Western Ky. at Nashville

Home opener: Sept. 7 vs. Miami (Ohio)

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