LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was an odd question, considering the red-headed fireball he was asking, but a reporter wondered aloud Friday whether coach Mark Stoops was still passionate about the process heading into Year 4 of a grueling Kentucky football rebuild.
“Give me a break,” Stoops said. “You should have been in the meeting last night.”
It apparently was quite a scene as the 2016 Wildcats gathered in their new $45 million training center for the first meeting of preseason camp. Stoops started out simmering, talking in a normal-ish tone, but it wasn’t long before he boiled over and let loose a series of full-throated screams.
Defensive tackle Matt Elam and several teammates were overcome by the spirit of the moment and roared right along with him.
“If you weren’t excited and you didn’t have goosebumps, then you don’t need to be in this sport,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “Because I was at the edge of my seat. I was ready to go. It’s real. It’s time.”
Time for a breakthrough after consecutive 5-7 seasons that tantalized fans early and disappointed them late. Part of Stoops’ message to the team Thursday night was about finishing the job, but most of it was focused on all the little details that will make it happen.
“The fine strokes it takes to win at a high level,” Stoops said Friday at the team’s media day. “I’m tired of working on the broad strokes.”
So the new catchphrase he kept barking at the players in that meeting was “top button,” linebacker De’Niro Laster said, pointing at the neckline of his shirt. “Time to button up.” Sweat the small stuff, in other words.
Because, Stoops told them, the Cats owe that to the boosters and administrators and everyone else who helped transform UK’s football facilities in the past three years: the training center this summer, the $126 million stadium renovation unveiled last fall.
“It’s just strictly business now,” receiver Dorian Baker said. “For them to have held up their end, making sure we have everything at our fingertips to be the best players we can be, we have to hold up our end by being the best players we can be, on and off the field.”
It’s all coming together now, Stoops told them. You’re good enough now, he said. You’re ready. So go earn what you’ve been given, he howled, and by the time he was finished, the players were ready to run through their fancy new reclaimed-barn-wood walls.
“There’s no more excuses. I mean, look at this place. Everything is awesome. We’ve got the players, got the coaches, got the facilities. It’s time to take care of business,” tight end C.J. Conrad said. “It was exciting to see him up there. You can hear it in his voice: it’s just different this year. I don’t know how to explain it, but the energy level of the coaches, their voices, everything, I think this is our year.”
Linebacker Courtney Love is from Stoops’ hometown, Youngstown, Ohio, and has known the coach since Love was a little boy. He figures Thursday night’s speech is the most fired-up he’s ever seen Stoops.
“He’s a guy who wants what he wants,” Love said, “and we’re going to give it to him.”
Stoops knows he can’t shout his way to the program’s first bowl game since 2010. Three years toiling in the mighty SEC have hammered home that point. But that grind also has taught Kentucky’s coach what a winning roster looks like in this league, and he believes he finally has one.
He’s spent the summer saying — and now screaming — as much.
“Coach Stoops has had a plan in place since we’ve been here, and we feel like the pieces are falling into place,” said defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who has worked with Stoops at four other stops and known him almost 20 years. “So I do sense a confidence in him, and I think it’s going to translate into our training camp and into this season.”
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