You can’t be afraid to be unpopular.
Mark Stoops said it.
Eddie Gran said it.
Such was a recurring message at Kentucky football’s Media Day on Friday, the annual event when everyone is gripping and grinning and posing and pontificating and full of optimism about the season ahead.
Stoops is kicking off his fourth campaign as the UK coach, and in the middle of his news conference at a jammed media room at Commonwealth Stadium, he said this of transfer linebacker and acclaimed leader Courtney Love: “He’s not afraid to be unpopular.”
A little later, when Gran took his (hot) seat before the media, UK’s new head coach for offense made a similar statement when talking about his starting quarterback, Drew Barker, the redshirt sophomore who for the first time begins the season as the leader of his unit.
“You can’t be the guy who’s liked all the time,” Gran said.
The coach offered a pair of Hall of Fame examples. Look at Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, he said. When those NFL quarterbacks were sacked, or foiled by a receiver who ran the wrong route, they didn’t just say “fiddlesticks; we’ll get ’em next time.”
“They weren’t afraid to undress someone on the sidelines,” Gran said.
Kentucky has had those kind of quarterbacks in the past. Bill Ransdell (1984-86) comes immediately to mind. The former Elizabethtown star was spit-nails tough and held his teammates accountable. Often, Ransdell led by sheer will.
Can Barker be one of those guys? Like Ransdell, Barker is from Kentucky, having starred at Conner High School. Like Ransdell, Barker was a coveted recruit who picked the home state school. Like Ransdell back in the early Jerry Claiborne years, Barker is charged with leading UK football out of a dark period.
The difference, of course, is that Barker hasn’t done it yet. He started just the final two games last season.
“It’s kind of hard to be vocal when you haven’t really played a lot,” Barker said Friday. “So I’m more of a person I guess who leads by example, but once you go make those plays I feel like your voice carries more weight.”
No one has questioned Barker’s effort to this point. Wide receiver and former roommate Dorian Baker said, “Drew has busted his backbone.” Gran said of Barker, “He’s done a fantastic job of being a sponge.”
And yet there are psychological and motivational components to the job as well. It comes with being a quarterback. You are the leader, whether you want to be or not. And it should be noted that last season, when UK’s 4-1 start dissolved into a 5-7 finish, there were lots of questions about leadership and plenty of whispers about a divided locker room, with one side backing then-starter Patrick Towles and one side backing the backup Barker.
Stoops denied any such divide, but you wonder whether the coaches are trying to chart a different path this year. Yes, they want unity and teamwork, but they want more of an edge to this group. Plant your feet and take a stand. Even if it’s not always a popular stand with your teammates.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be a leader,” Barker said. “When you’re a leader, usually a leader is not a guy who’s popular all the time. You can be cool with everybody and away from football (be) friends with everybody, but when you’re in that setting, you’ve got to step up and sometimes you’ve got to say something that someone doesn’t want to hear.
“To be a leader, you’ve definitely got to be disliked sometimes. But at the end of the day, everyone is going to look back at you and know you’re a leader and this is a team.”
Can Drew Barker be that unpopular guy when the circumstances call for an unpopular guy?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “For sure.”
Kentucky passers last 10 seasons