LEXINGTON – When Coach Mark Stoops was out talking with excited boosters this summer about prospects for his first University of Kentucky football team, he knew that the line between cheerleading and reality could be extremely fine.
“I’ve been honest,” Stoops said Monday, two days after his team lapsed in a Joker Phillips-like panic mode in a 35-26, season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. “(But) what do you say? We want excitement. We want people believing in what we’re doing. We believe in what we’re doing, as a coaching staff and as players.”
But, on the other hand ... Phillips didn’t exactly leave the cupboard full after he was fired following a 2-10 season last year. And many of Stoops’ first recruits, while clearly promising, are freshmen who played in front of about 45,000 more people Saturday in Nashville than they ever did in high school.
Kentucky had 11 first-time starters against Western. A total of 10 newcomers saw action, including six true freshmen.
Stoops did not volunteer those numbers, mind you. He is not an excuse-maker. And when he talked about the numerous mistakes, mentally and physically, made against the Hilltoppers, Stoops would not name any player.
“You know me, I’m not one to sit here and throw anybody under the bus,” he said. “I have a hard time saying anything bad about our players.
“It’s our job to put the players in position to be successful. Players have responsibilities, sure. The big thing for me is to find the right chemistry and psychologically get them ready to play, to get them over the hump.”
A lot of parts need to be put in place...that’s where Stoops and his staff find
themselves. And, a lot of confidence issues, dating back to recent years, that need to be mended.
More on that in a minute.
“I know exactly what we’re in,” Stoops said. “I knew what I was getting into, and I know what I’m into. We’re not going to flinch, and we’re going to do the best we can to move forward and win games.
“You know, I do appreciate the support,” Stoops said, when asked about the fans, a few of whom may be at least temporarily off the bandwagon. “Our players do, too.
“We’re in this for the long haul. We told our players after the game: ‘We have to play 11 more, one-game seasons.”
Stoops appeared genuinely surprised that his players did not respond better to prime time Saturday.
“I saw some wide eyes out there on Saturday, and we need to get over that,” Stoops said. “We’ve got to cut it loose and play.”
Stoops said, in other words, that the Wildcats did not play with the composure and discipline they needed to when the Hilltoppers smacked them in the face early on.
“I thought we were excited, and then a few bad things happen, and all of a sudden, everybody’s worried about all kinds of things,” he said. “Just settle in, it’s a long game. That’s where I thought we could have handled things better.
“I saw some people lapse into some bad habits. I should have done a better job foreseeing that because, when things go bad, players just want to go back out there and make plays.”
In other words, the players try to do too much, and team play suffers as a result.
“When things go bad, you need to go back to fundamentals and paying attention to the small details,” said Stoops. “We lost sight of the details on both side of the ball.
“Guys mean well, but that doesn’t mean they’re playing well. You can’t just get out there and run around doing your own thing.”
That, Stoops said, was the most discouraging part.
“That was discouraging because we work extremely hard on the details, and we didn’t do that (Saturday),” Stoops said. “That where I need to improve and get the team to improve, is not to flinch. Bad things are going to happen. But you have to overcome them, and deal with them and get better.”
Starting Saturday, when the Miami of Ohio RedHawks come to Commonwealth Stadium for a noon kickoff on Fox South television.
Miami was blasted, 52-14, by Marshall in its opener, seemingly making Saturday’s game a confidence builder that Kentucky badly needs.
Stoops said Monday that Maxwell Smith will start at quarterback, and former Franklin County Flyer Ryan Timmons will start at wideout, among other changes.
But it shouldn’t make a lot of difference who starts in this one. The matchups should favor the Wildcats across the board. For one of the very few times this season.
This is a huge game for Kentucky, with Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama waiting in weeks three through six.
Stoops remains squarely grounded in reality, even if some of the fans are not.
“The first thing is we all have to accept the reality of what it is,” Stoops said when asked about this rebuilding job. “We have to accept it, and embrace it.
“There is no easy formula. There’s no easy switch. There’s no magical scheme on either side of the ball that we can do overnight.
“I’m not discouraged. I’m anxious to get back to work, and I know the team is.”
That’s one of the biggest things we talked about when we got back to the locker room after the game,” said junior wide receiver Demarco Robinson, who played a marvelous all-around game against WKU. “We have to move ahead. We can’t change the past.
“We can only worry about the future.”