By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” That quote, by well known author Jack London, pretty much sums up the great job that Mark Stoops and his coaching staff did this year with the UK Football season. They played a poor hand well. Here’s what I mean.
South Carolina lost their senior starting quarterback, Jake Bentley, to a season ending foot injury about the same time UK lost junior starting quarterback Terry Wilson to a season ending knee injury. At that point both head coaches, Will Muschamp at South Carolina and Mark Stoops at Kentucky, had been dealt a “poor hand”.
Muschamp at South Carolina stuck with his pro-style passing offense, plugged in a talented but inexperienced freshman quarterback in Ryan Hilinski and watched his team’s season crumble one game at a time. His Gamecocks finished the season 4-8, losing five of their last six games including a 38-3 blowout loss to hated arch rival Clemson. Like Kentucky Muschamp had injuries at most key positions including quarterback and running back.
At the end of the season, when asked about where the program appears to be headed knowing there is no bowl game this year, Muschamp said, “We’ve had more success than any staff in its first three years at the University of South Carolina. I’m not happy with that, but I’m saying there is positive progress to at least latch on to.” In his defense Muschamp has had one good year (9-4 overall) at South Carolina but a 4-8 record after going 9-4 in 2017 followed by a 7-6 season in 2018 isn’t positive progress in my opinion.
Contrast that with what Mark Stoops did with his “poor hand” at Kentucky. After the Terry Wilson knee injury, Stoops turned to graduate transfer quarterback Sawyer Smith to try to salvage the season. Smith played well for a half against Florida but was also injured and rendered ineffective for the rest of the season. With backup quarterbacks Nick Scalzo and Walker Wood also either out or not 100 percent Stoops could have tucked his tail and his team could have folded up like an old time gas station road map but they didn’t.
Instead of plugging in inexperienced true freshman quarterback Amani Gilmore into the same offense Stoops allowed Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran to completely revamp the offensive scheme and insert wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr into the quarterback spot and the rest, they say, is history. UK won five of their last seven games on their way to finishing 7-5, beat their arch rival Louisville 45-13 and received an invitation to play in the Belk Bowl on New Year’s eve.
So what happened? How could Mark Stoops turn it around when Will Muschamp couldn’t? Here’s what Mark Stoops had to say about the season, “We’re pretty motivated in what we do and how we go about our business and we feel pretty good about it. A lot of teams can say ifs and buts. Everybody does, right. That’s the game and I could promise you, we’ve been through our fair share and fought our way out of it.”
You notice he said, “a lot of teams can say ifs and buts.” In some coaches’ season ending press conferences that’s exactly what is heard, “a lot of ifs and buts”. Stoops went on to say, “It’s a long season and it’s just too easy to give in, you know what I mean, and we will not have a defeated mentality. Those guys won’t do it. They just won’t.”
All of that bodes well for next year’s team and the years beyond because each season, like the 2019 season, great players will have graduated and unfortunately some players may be lost to injury. But through all of that adversity fans will know that they have a coach that understands and is willing to do whatever it takes to help his players win ball games; and that’s all you can ask from your head football coach.