Mark Story

Mark Story: So far, Stoops walking the line of being honest without throwing players under the bus

Coach Mark Stoops has changed the sideline demeanor this season at Kentucky, even in lopsided losses. "I'm not going to let these guys hide," he was quoted as saying of his players.
Coach Mark Stoops has changed the sideline demeanor this season at Kentucky, even in lopsided losses. "I'm not going to let these guys hide," he was quoted as saying of his players. Herald-Leader

Mark Stoops was animated — agitated might be the better word — at his weekly news conference Monday. Losing five games in a row tends to do that to a major-college football coach.

"We need to be a smarter football team," Stoops said. "We're not very smart at times. And we need to execute in critical situations."

For college coaches at the SEC level, finding the appropriate tone to adopt in public in assessing the play of one's players forms a vexing challenge.

In the present environment, filled with message boards and social media and relentless rehashing of how games are won and lost, a head coach must provide enough honest analysis to be credible with the public.

Yet you need to do it without calling out individual players — college kids, after all — to such an extent you lose your team, alienate potential recruits or divide your own fan base.

In my view, this is how coaches should walk what is a narrow line: It is acceptable for a head man to evaluate how a player performs in games.

It's not wise for a coach to 1.) comment on personality deficiencies on the part of a college student that may have led to a subpar performance; 2.) publicly criticize the players on the team to deflect heat from the coaching staff.

So far in his first season as a major-college head football coach, Stoops has been frank in assessing his team and the state of the UK program without going too far with public criticism of individual players.

Perhaps the pivotal play of Kentucky's hard-fought 28-22 loss at Mississippi State last Thursday came when UK, having scored a touchdown to pull within 21-19, recovered an on-side kick on the ensuing kickoff — only to have the recovery negated by penalty.

A member of the Wildcats kickoff team, sophomore Daron Blaylock, who was on the side opposite where the on-side kick was going was called for being off-sides.

On Monday, Stoops addressed the play without mentioning any player by name.

"I thought we gave ourselves another opportunity to win the game last week with a special-teams play," the UK coach said. "... It's a game-changer, and we're six inches off-sides, for no reason. I addressed (not being off-sides) personally (in practices). That's not very smart."

One could tell Monday that Stoops was frustrated by Kentucky's quarterback play against Mississippi State. Yet he never mentioned Maxwell Smith, who started and struggled in Starkville, by name.

"If nothing else, if we get ourselves with certain plays and checks and run-pass options, if we just execute the call, we give ourselves a chance," Stoops said. "We're not even doing that at times and that's frustrating, let alone (making) throws or different things."

Honest assessment of performance, but not personal criticism.

Back in 2004, a horrid 2-9 Kentucky football season in which Hal Mumme-era NCAA sanctions really bit a UK program then led by Rich Brooks, I thought some of the Wildcats brain trust went a bit too far in their bluntness about the perceived lack of capability of their own team and players.

After Kentucky was putrid offensively in a 28-0 spanking by archrival Louisville in the '04 season opener, then-Kentucky offensive coordinator Ron Hudson told the media "I'll be out recruiting next week. That's the only way to fix this."

When Alabama whacked UK 45-17 in '04, Brooks noted that the Crimson Tide at that time led the all-time series with Kentucky 32-2-1 and said "yet, all of a sudden, I'm supposed to beat them with a probation-ridden team?"

In fairness, the Brooks staff circa 2004 was not popular and was under fire from a disgruntled fan base and a skeptical state sports media. Conversely, Stoops was a well-received hire whose early recruiting success has helped buffer him and his coaching staff from the criticism a 1-6 start might have normally engendered.

If Stoops ever has to coach through an environment as adverse as Brooks and Co. faced in their early days, we'll see if the current UK head man can stay on the "right side" of the player criticism line.

After Kentucky's season-opening loss to Western Kentucky, Stoops was asked what part of his team's disappointing performance had most surprised him.

"It's hard to answer. You know me. I'm not one to sit here and throw anybody under the bus," he said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader