LEXINGTON, Ky. – So about that Mark Stoops buyout …
“I-told-you-so’s are a really dangerous thing,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart told SEC Country during an exclusive interview Wednesday. “I don’t think that’s what this is about.”
Still, it must be nice, after watching the Wildcats win 5 of 6 football games to come within a single victory of the program’s first bowl berth since 2010 – with winless FCS Austin Peay still on the schedule – to see a coaching hire (and contract) validated at long last. Surely there is relief after all the criticism.
“I don’t listen to the noise much,” Barnhart said, before admitting: “I wouldn’t say you’re void of it. You always hear stuff … and people are pretty good about reminding you.”
It seemed odd even then, on Halloween 2014, with Kentucky having lost two in a row and on the eve of a trip to defending SEC East champion Missouri. Barnhart called an unexpected news conference that afternoon to announce a contract extension for Stoops worth a total of $21.45 million through the 2019 season.
MORE STATE OF THE BBN:
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- What Kentucky’s AD thought (and said to Mark Stoops) at 0-2 and now.
- Can surging Cats sell out UGA game? Barnhart knows some fans not sold.
- And what if UK football makes Atlanta same day hoops hosts UCLA?
Incredibly, it was the second extension in six months for a coach whose record at the time was 7-13 overall. More incredibly, that second extension included a new buyout – not for Stoops to pay if he left, but for the school to pay if it fired him. He would be owed the entirety of the deal if canned without cause before the end of the 2017 season, owed 80 percent if fired before the end of 2018 and owed 60 percent at any point after that.
That contract in general, and the buyout specifically, quickly began to look like an albatross for Barnhart. To be fair, the Wildcats were 5-3 at that moment, having just lost a close game to then-No. 1 Mississippi State, and recruiting was red-hot. Everyone around the program believed Kentucky was going to make its first bowl game since 2010.
Barnhart said the extension was about the “trajectory” under Stoops.
“I remember the plan that he gave me and put in place. He has followed that to a T,” the AD told a group of surprised reporters that day. “Everything he has said he was going to do, he has done, and it’s on schedule and on task.”
And then it wasn’t. Stoops didn’t win another game in 2014, missing the postseason. The next year brought more of the same: a 4-1 start, a 1-6 finish, no bowl game. And then came this season, one of great expectation, which started with a stunning home loss to Southern Miss and a lifeless blowout at Florida.
All hope seemed lost, and fans fumed over the fact that, thanks to that buyout – which would be $12 million after this season – it was all but impossible to fire Stoops. Lucky for Kentucky, as it turns out.
“Our players changed the way they think, our coaches changed the way they think,” Barnhart said this week. “Our fans, they’ve got a right to change the way they think. In the microwave society we’re in, there’s no mystery that sometimes the ebb and the flow, if you ride that wave too hard, you’re going to have a hard time living. So you try to be steady in that – steady in the storm.
“And when you’re really good, and you’ve done something really special, don’t be prideful about that. Make sure you maintain that sense of balance, because that’s when you usually get knocked to the ground.”
So Barnhart isn’t gloating over Kentucky football’s sudden success or the fact that he did what he did back then to keep a coach he thought would soon be a hot commodity – and that it might just work out after all. But he’s certainly not apologizing for that extension or the buyout either.
“We did the extension for Mark for a couple reasons: We were at five wins, we were recruiting our fannies off; our coaches were working so hard in recruiting and they were doing a good job moving the needle for us in recruiting,” Barnhart said. “And as you can see, we’ve got a lot of good young players … some really good players that are sitting, waiting their turn, redshirting, and that’s exciting to me. So the reason (for) the extension was a variety of things.
“Didn’t get where we wanted to go (that year), but we’re trying to get back there again. Knocking on the door. We gotta bust through it. But I think if you get into validation, that’s probably not the reason to do things.”