Since the dawn of time, Kentucky football has followed a pretty consistent script: convincing yourself you have a shot in the preseason, getting high on a sliver of success (“FIRST DOWN KENTUCKY!”), and, with a sad shake of your head because you knew it was coming, enduring beatdown after beatdown until, bloodied and panting, you crawl under the table until basketball.
There are exceptions, of course. Fran Curci, Jerry Claiborne, the thrill of scratching plays in the dirt with Hal Mumme and Tim Couch, and the blissful 2007 season with Rich Brooks that had us dreaming of a different life, one where upsets became the norm and “College Gameday” was com-ing to our cit-taaay. However, the cruel “Rise” of the Joker era plummeted the program back to the cellar, where we resumed our old habits and occasionally looked up through the glass ceiling at our SEC counterparts.
I can only speak as a fan, but I think it’s safe to say that the players have lived under this ceiling as well. For too long, Kentucky football has been haunted by a “losing mentality.” You can almost feel the moment coming, a sick sixth sense. With the first big hit from an SEC linebacker goes the sugar high of the cupcake season. Whereas most would get up and shake it off, the old Kentucky football taught us that it’s okay to roll over. The beating’s going to come anyways, right? Why fight it.
Although Kentucky made considerable strides last season, that mentality still pops up occasionally, most notably last Saturday afternoon.
“If you don’t play with a chip on your shoulder, we’ll have no chance”
Stoops has been candid about how dire things were when he took over: poor talent, poor fundamentals, mediocre facilities, and an impossible schedule. In two years, he’s done an excellent job resolving three of those issues, and there’s not much he can do about the fourth; however, I’d argue the biggest challenge he’s facing right now is getting rid of the losing mentality around the program. After listening to his comments on the show yesterday, I believe that’s the entire reason he called the practice on Saturday night.
“I was clearly frustrated after the scrimmage. More than anything, it was about what I felt on that field,” Stoops said on KSR. “The bottom line is, I’m looking for an attitude, I’m looking for an effort. This game is played with a giant chip on your shoulder. And if you don’t play with a chip on your shoulder, we’ll have no chance. When we do, when we play with that toughness, when we play with that attitude, when we play with that chip on your shoulder, we’ll have a chance to beat anybody.”
Last year at SEC Media Days, Bud Dupree acknowledged the team’s confidence problems, which have built up over years of struggle.
“We have enough talent to win games. Now, the big key behind it is, do we believe we have enough talent to win games?,” Dupree said before the beginning of last season. “Even though the coach is telling me I can do it, if I don’t believe in my mind I can do it, it’s not going to happen.”
A 5-1 start showed the team believed, but a 0-6 finish (with three blowouts) revealed there’s still a long way to go.
“We truly are getting started, but you know what? It’s time to go.”
Sometimes it’s easier to roll over and play dead than push past your comfort zone, especially if the former is a habit. With the talent gap narrowed, Stoops’ next obstacle is the space between the ears. He said as much yesterday, noting that even though his team was worn out physically from a scrimmage earlier that day, he wanted to push them to see how they would respond mentally.
“Once you challenge them to that point, it could have went one of two ways,” Stoops said. “I was very happy with the way our team responded, and I felt like they needed that challenge. Quite frankly, if I had done that and challenged them to that brink earlier, I’m not sure they would have handled it the right way.”
When the going gets tough, whether it be in the dog days of camp or in the middle of the SEC schedule, Stoops is pushing his players to go. Even if it means playing football in the dark when you could be partying with your friends on the first weekend of school.
“We truly are getting started, but you know what? It’s time to go. It’s no longer acceptable for us to accept the mediocrity and below. We need to step it up and push ourselves and compete at a higher level.”
Finally fielding a product you can be proud of
Leaving a perennial powerhouse like Florida State for Kentucky must have been quite the culture shock, so you can’t blame Mark Stoops for not wanting to shout his 7-17 record from the rooftops. He knows the dangers of false expectations, especially with a vulnerable fan base like Kentucky’s. When asked about the excitement in the fan base, Stoops had a very telling response.
“You know, I’ve always danced around that question since I’ve been here for this reason: I want to put a good product on the field. So, if I’m calling for people to drive hours and hours and spend the money and deal with all the crowds and how long it takes people to get here, to come from the Eastern part of the state or the Western part of the state…”
“I take pride in the product we put on the field,” he repeated. “Quite honestly, it hasn’t been good enough for me either, but this year, I feel like we have a good chance to have a very good football team.”
Hopefully one that will use the lessons learned on a dark August night to push through.