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After 5 years of questions, is Mark Stoops the answer for Kentucky Football?

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Coaching success cannot simply be based on wins and losses. For Mark Stoops, serious questions—ones that shouldn’t have to be asked after five years in charge—need answered.

Kentucky v Mississippi State
Mark Stoops had a chance to lead Kentucky to a program-defining season. Instead, his inability to manage games—or his players—has led many to believe that the program will not take that next step as long as he is in charge.
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

This season’s motto was, “Let’s Go To Work.”

Someone should check on the Kentucky defense and the coaching staff, because they didn’t show up for their shifts on Saturday.

Only one word can be used to describe what we saw on Kroger Field during Saturday’s loss to Louisville: embarrassing. Embarrassing performance put in by the defense. Embarrassing actions taken by individual players. Embarrassing failures to adjust or discipline by the coaching staff.

For much of the five-year tenure of Mark Stoops, the focus of both the fan-base and the media covering the team has been on wins and losses. “Well, we started 7-3 and could be 9-1 if (insert numerous reasons here)” was all we heard from many, while ignoring the obvious flaws and the fact that this team could just as easily have been 2-8 had certain breaks not gone their way.

However, after seeing players getting into fights (which has been a common theme during the UK-UofL game since Stoops’ arrival), seeing Jordan Jones lose his mind on the first defensive drive after the halftime break, and seeing Benny Snell told to suck it up and keep running, the time has come for everyone around the Kentucky football program to ask themselves: when does it become about more than just the record?

Look, let’s give credit where credit is due. Mark Stoops has done a wonderful job turning around a program that, a few years ago, was losing at home to Vanderbilt in front of an empty stadium. He has brought in a much higher caliber of player than we saw under Joker Phillips, and he spear-headed the push to finally upgrade the football facilities. He has taken Kentucky to consecutive 7-5 regular season finishes. Those are achievements that he can be proud of, and that we should be thankful for.

That said, there are also a lot of things that have taken place during his five years that can no longer be overlooked. When you come in as a “defensive coach”, and your defenses look lost at the end of the fifth year on simple plays, that’s inexcusable. When you don’t have control of your players, and you then don’t reprimand them after they make horrible mistakes, that is inexcusable.

Let’s start with the aspect of the game yesterday that had absolutely nothing to do with Xs and Os: the actions of Jordan Jones. This young man was an absolute embarrassment to the Kentucky program with his bush-league antics. From starting the fight with Lamar Jackson, to committing back-to-back personal foul penalties on Kentucky’s first defensive possession of the second half, the linebacker made it clear that he cared about nobody else on the team. It continued when Jones, on more than one occasion, got into heated arguments with the assistant coaches in team huddles throughout the second half.

The most concerning aspect of Jones’ antics, however, is how Stoops reacted.

I’m sorry, let me phrase that differently.

The most concerning aspect of Jones’ antics is how Stoops chose to do absolutely nothing. Nothing at all, folks. He didn’t bench the player after he taunted Jackson, and then tackled him to the ground. He didn’t bench the player after a stupid personal foul penalty. It wasn’t until after the second personal foul penalty that Jones was pulled--and it’s still not clear whether Stoops did that, or defensive coordinator Matt House who made the call.

“I need to do a better job of working with him and holding him accountable and holding his feet to the fire on that,” is what Stoops said to the media after the game. He said that about a player who, after the first game of the season, spit on opposing fans on the road. He said that about a player who was playing in the final regular-season game of his junior year. He also said that after allowing that same player to continue playing, despite multiple instances of selfish, unacceptable actions.

This has become a trend with Mark Stoops at the University of Kentucky. From the Drew Barker incidents, to nearly every other issue to arise with this team, the discipline by the coaching staff has left many scratching their heads. Many felt that Jones should have been suspended for his disgusting actions at Southern Miss, but no action was taken. When you factor in the tweets from players (look at Lynn Bowden and Blake Bone from earlier in the season, not just the Nick Haynes situation), you wonder how much control the staff has over the players, and how good the relationship is. Throw in the high number of transfers this past offseason, and you begin to see a very troubling pattern.

All that aside, the Xs and Os need addressed as well. The epitome of the season for Kentucky’s secondary came on a two-play stretch in the first half on Saturday. Stoops and company love to employ a cover-two zone concept, and Louisville ran a four-wide set, with a running back motioning out of the backfield. The play went for a big gain down the sideline, and it was obvious that the secondary was positioned poorly and confused.

Louisville then ran the exact same play on the very next snap.

It resulted in two players being wide open, and the receiver dropping a sure touchdown.

Folks, that’s not poor play by the secondary. That’s bad coaching. That’s bad playcalling. The reason I say that: it’s the exact same thing Florida and Missouri did to this defense. And it hasn’t improved one bit.

I will not try to tell anybody that Stoops is a bad coach. He obviously knows how to teach the game to players, and help them improve. What I will say, however, is that he cannot manage a game. Stoops has struggled with making adjustments his entire career, and he does not know how to manage the clock, manage his personnel (see how often they get confused or have to rush players in/out), or adapt in-game to what is happening. Compare him with a coach like Nick Saban, and you see the vast difference. Eddie Gran is the same way—he can draw up some terrific plays, but he struggles with calling an offensive gameplan once the ball has been kicked off.

Did Stoops win seven games this year? Yes, he did, and good for him. He got himself another year on a way-too-long contract, and a nice quarter million dollar bonus. However, there is 7-5, and there is 7-5. This was not a good 7-5. This was a 7-5 record built on barely beating inferior teams, and a very down SEC. Only three of the seven wins came against teams who finished with a winning record—and two of those wins came down to the final drive.

Records are nice. Wins are nice. However, they do not tell the entire story. Let’s put the record in perspective: Purdue—the team that is projected to face Kentucky in the Music City Bowl—went 6-6 against a much tougher schedule. They played two common opponents (Louisville and Missouri) and performed much more impressively than Kentucky did. Sure, we had the better record. Nobody outside of Kentucky, however, is going to think that this is the better team.

The point is, there are major questions about this program that, five years in, should not have to be answered. Players should not be left wide open multiple times by the secondary, when you have a “defensive guru” coaching the team. Your star running back should not be told to suck it up and keep going, when he’s carried the ball ten straight times and is clearly in need of a rest. You should not have a player acting like a psych ward patient on the field, and having his teammates rushing over to help the opposing quarterback get to safety. (Speaking of—kudos to Josh Allen for rushing over, getting Lamar out of the pile, and trying to calm the situation.) You should not have to struggle to beat an FCS team that went 4-7 on the season.

The SEC is going to get much stronger next season. Florida has already hired Dan Mullen, which means that streak may not end anytime soon. There are rumors that Mike Leach (the man I would love to see come home to run this program) may take the Mississippi State job to replace him—which means that annual game will continue to be a tough one. Tennessee is going to eventually (maybe) hire a head coach, and whoever he is will be better than Butch Jones. Missouri turned their season around, winning their final six games after losing five in a row, and look to be headed in the right direction.

Things will get harder, not easier, for a Kentucky team that will have to replace their starting quarterback, and may have three of their best players on defense (Allen, Courtney Love, and Denzil Ware) leave the program for the NFL Draft. That is not taking into account the losses of Juice Johnson, Charles Walker, and CJ Conrad, in addition to any transfers that may take place—oh, and the best kicker to suit up for the program will be leaving, too.

Mark Stoops will undoubtedly be the head coach next season. Even if Kentucky wanted to go get someone else, his buyout is too massive to make a change. However, it is clear that he is not the right man for this job. After five years, there are too many questions that need answered, too many problems that have not been addressed, and too many excuses made by a man who is the longest-tenured coach in the SEC East. He cannot blame the coordinators anymore. He cannot blame Joker’s players anymore.

The fact is, Stoops has hit the ceiling of what he can accomplish at Kentucky, and the floor is likely going to drop much further next season. Kentucky fans deserve more than that. They have suffered enough. Mediocrity cannot be sustained when everyone around you is getting better, and you are not. We don’t accept it from the basketball program—Tubby Smith got fired for it, and he had a national championship to fall back on—so why should be satisfied with it from the football program, simply because of the dark times we have seen in the past?

I am going to enjoy the bowl game, wherever it is. I am afraid it will be the last one we see Kentucky play in as long as Mark Stoops is in charge. I just hope the entire team and coaching staff remembers the motto and shows up for it.