Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you see something new.
In all my many years following and covering University of Kentucky athletics, I’ve never seen a press conference quite like the press conference that was held Saturday at Kroger Field. But then I don’t think we’ve ever seen a situation quite like the one happening now in UK athletics. Unprecedented is an overused term these days, but this is unprecedented.
Background: While publicly lobbying for a new practice facility, UK head coach John Calipari declared Kentucky a basketball school. That brought public pushback from UK football coach Mark Stoops, who tweeted, “Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC. #4straightpostseasonwins.”
Saturday was our first chance to speak to Stoops since the brouhaha began. Consensus was the coach would decline comment and refer questions to AD Mitch Barnhart, right? Wrong. Stoops doubled down. “Some may, but this program didn’t wake up on third base,” the coach said in explaining his reaction. “That’s not a PR firm over there (at the football training facility). That’s a work environment.”
Barnhart followed Stoops onto the podium. Clearly annoyed by the events of the day, the AD didn’t exactly smooth the waters. He gave a passionate defense of his athletics program and its priorities, detailing accomplishments and future goals. (A new basketball practice facility was not a part of that.) Barnhart’s message: Grace. Gratitude. Let’s be thankful for what we have. No one is entitled.
With his team in the middle of a four-game exhibition series in the Bahamas, Calipari finally tweeted an apology of sorts Saturday night, then did a short interview with WLEX’s Keith Farmer in which he said, “I said the wrong thing” and promised to meet with Stoops to iron the whole thing out.
Truth be told, this kind of internal politics goes on in every athletics department. Coaches are always lobbying for more, more, more. The difference here is that this time it played out in public. During his presser, Barnhart insinuated that the media had inflated the importance of the story because “there’s nothing else going on right now.” I’d beg to differ. When’s the last time the two most prominent coaches at the same school feuded in public? That’s news.
So what’s behind the news? Money, of course. There’s only so much of it to go around, at least where boosters are concerned. And these days, with the introduction of name, image and likeness, boosters are being pulled every which way but loose, continually asked to step up and help the program or programs.
The same boosters Calipari is lobbying to fund a “Taj Mahal” basketball practice facility are the same boosters Stoops is courting to improve football’s fortunes. It goes with the territory. Calipari wants what he wants. Stoops wants what he wants. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but not everyone gets what they want.
One difference in the dynamic is that Stoops has shown what can be done. He has made good use of the improvements he has been afforded, improvements he has worked hard to fund and implement. His on-the-field success makes backers more likely to dig deeper into their pockets. And that hasn’t always been the case with Kentucky football.
Don’t forget, Calipari and Stoops also have the same boss. These days, being the AD of a major college athletics program is a thankless job. And the last thing the boss of any company needs is to have employees squabbling in the public domain. And if you think Barnhart is upset about what went on last week — “That’s not who we are,” he said Saturday — I can’t imagine UK President Eli Capilouto is thrilled either.
I’m on record as saying Calipari overstepped his bounds. There was no need to drag football into his argument, unless, of course, there was a purpose to Cal’s message. Stoops was right to react the way he did. He defended his players, his staff, his program. He’s not taking a back seat to anyone. And he sent a clear message to his locker room: I’ve got your back.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see what happens next.