Mark Story

Mark Story: Was Stoops' contract extension premature?

UK Coach Mark Stoops shouted at Kentucky linebacker Josh Forrest (45) during the loss at Missouri. On Monday, Stoops said UK needs to develop "winning habits."
UK Coach Mark Stoops shouted at Kentucky linebacker Josh Forrest (45) during the loss at Missouri. On Monday, Stoops said UK needs to develop "winning habits." Herald-Leader

Last Friday, the University of Kentucky announced that Mark Stoops had received a contract extension through the end of the 2019 season. The deal includes what is essentially a $1.225 million a year raise (over the life of the contract) for the second-year head football coach.

The following day, Stoops' team turned in the most disappointing effort of his brief tenure in a 20-10 loss at Missouri. As timing goes, not the optimum moment for the Wildcats to throw in such a clunker.

At his weekly news conference Monday, Stoops still had steam emitting from both ears.

"We need to be a more disciplined football team," Stoops said. "We need to be tougher, mentally and physically to win on the road and in environments like that. It gets down to us and what we're doing and how we're coaching. (We) need to create more winning habits."

In a more logical marketplace, a university would wait for more demonstrable signs of on-field progress than Stoops, 7-14 so far at UK, has yet produced before signing off on a multi-million dollar contract enhancement for a coach.

On the other hand, if you are Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, under which scenario will you be more second-guessed:

A.) If you extend Stoops now, he fails, and you get stuck paying a big contract buyout?

B.) If you wait for more on-the-field success before sweetening the football coach's pact, only to watch a successful Stoops then bolt for a better deal elsewhere?

As much flack as the UK administration will take if A comes to pass, it would pale, in my opinion, to the criticism Barnhart would face if scenario B occurred.

Off the field, Kentucky football has ridden a wave of momentum since Stoops was hired.

If the recruiting gurus know what they are talking about, Kentucky has been attracting a much higher level of player since it chose the ex-Florida State defensive coordinator to replace Joker Phillips after the 2012 season.

In 2013, Stoops' initial recruiting class — which included some holdovers from Phillips' efforts — was ranked 29th in the country by The 2014 UK recruiting class was ranked 17th. With only 16 commitments so far for 2015, Kentucky nevertheless stands 25th in the Rivals ratings.

The positive public reaction to the choice of Stoops, I believe, helped Barnhart convince the university administration to finally sign off on what will be a $120 million upgrade of Commonwealth Stadium.

Stoops was able to tap some of the big-money donors who have long supported Kentucky men's basketball to raise the funds that will enable UK to soon break ground on a posh, $45 million football training facility.

"He has done a tremendous job in the fund-raising part of that, and I am appreciative of that," Barnhart said Friday.

On the field, the most concerning thing to me about Kentucky football so far under Stoops is that, for all the talk about the return of the Air Raid, UK really hasn't established a consistent offensive identity.

When asked Monday, Stoops said he and offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who comes out of the Hal Mumme/Tony Franklin school of pass happiness, are in sync. "Yeah, we're on the same page," Stoops said.

In the big picture, at 5-4, Kentucky has already won one more game than I predicted for Stoops' troops in the pre-season. With five victories, the 2014 Cats have also won more games than the past two Kentucky teams (which each went 2-10) combined.

However, after starting 5-1, the Cats are 0-3 since against a back-loaded schedule. With remaining games against talented Georgia, at perennial nemesis Tennessee and at archrival Louisville, it is possible, even probable, that UK will close the season on a six-game losing skid.

If that happens, Kentucky will not have lost one game in 2014 that it was favored to win — and it will have won one, South Carolina, it was not supposed to get. Still, finishing 5-7 after you've started 5-1 could leave a bad taste.

As eager as The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans are to see Kentucky's record catch up with the off-the-field momentum Stoops has engendered, it is asking an awful lot of the coach to take Kentucky from rock bottom to bowl game in two seasons.

"The wheels aren't falling off," Stoops said Monday, "(because) we've barely had them on."