LEXINGTON, Ky. — If there is any doubt whether Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart believes the Wildcats’ football coach is doing a good job, the boss erased that Sunday night.
“I want to congratulate Mark Stoops,” Barnhart said at a news conference celebrating UK’s invitation to the Music City Bowl to face Northwestern. “Back-to-back bowl games, 7-5 seasons, opportunity to win his first bowl game. We want that for him. Opportunity to get to eight wins — really, really important for him. It’s hard to do in a very, very competitive league. Our league is pretty good, in case anyone didn’t notice.”
He noted that both Georgia and Alabama made the 2017 College Football Playoff and Auburn was invited to a third New Year’s Day game: the Peach Bowl. Barnhart also noted the “turbulence” in the SEC, where Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M have changed head coaches this year.
“And I’m thankful for the stability that we have in our program, with the coaches we have in general in our program, and I’m thankful that we’ve got a leader like Mark,” Barnhart said.
Kentucky’s AD also said he finally broke a promise to himself — not to attend an SEC championship game until he took his own team to play in it — because he wanted to be there Saturday when the league honored four Cats who broke the SEC color barrier.
“In that moment, you see how unbelievably special our league is,” Barnhart said, “and I’m looking forward to the day we get to take Kentucky down there when that place is half blue against an opponent from the other side. I look forward to that day. And it can happen. I believe that with all my heart and I’ll be proud of the day when we have an opportunity to journey that with our team.”
Of course, he is aware that many fans are disappointed because this easily could’ve been a rare 9-win season for Kentucky — with SEC East title hopes still on the line heading into their final league game — if not for blown fourth-quarter leads against Florida and Ole Miss.
“Would you like to have a couple things back? Absolutely,” Barnhart admitted Sunday. “As the year comes to a close, Mark and I will sit down and have that conversation like we always do and he’s always really honest. That’s the one thing I love about Mark: He’s extremely honest; he’s reflective to himself and to his staff. He’s hard on himself. He wants this program to be as great as we all want it to be.
“Did we make all the progress we want to make? Surely not. We want to be in the SEC East championship game. That’s where we want to be. We want to be down in Atlanta, where I was yesterday.”
Barnhart concluded his 23-minute press conference, which felt very much like a prepared speech to reinvigorate disappointed Kentucky fans, by defending the decision to add to Stoops’ latest contract an automatic one-year extension for winning seven games in a season.
“At our place, you show growth by continuing to get to postseason play,” Barnhart said. “You can say, ‘OK, that’s not enough. That’s not strong enough.’ Everyone can disagree. Fine, but at the end of the day, look at the lay of the landscape. What we have isn’t broken.
“The stability is important. We’ve got a man that cares about this program deeply. Has invested deeply in it and is continuing to recruit young people to our program that we think can continue to grow it. As long as we’re making progress and getting to postseason and trying to take that next step, it’s worth honoring.”