HOOVER, Ala. (WDRB) -- How to describe following Alabama coach Nick Saban at Southeastern Conference Football Media Days?
You know how it looks after a severe storm has swept through and people start to wander out to survey the damage? That's what it was like when University of Kentucky coach Mark Stoops stepped to the podium following the Saban circus on Thursday.
"I'd like to thank the SEC for saving the best for last," Stoops said has he began his remarks, and the reporters who didn't have earbuds in transcribing Alabama quotes laughed.
Outside the Hyatt ballroom, a group of fans in the lobby broke into a "Roll Tide" chant, which was muffled when someone closed the door.
Stoops stood up to try to outline a new narrative for UK football, as many UK coaches have done before. But perhaps Stoops has more ammunition. He talked about the more than $150 million in football facilities enhancements on the way. He talked about the improvement of his players.
But he knows, it's going to take more than words to change SEC perception of his program.
The Wildcats were picked to finish last in the SEC's Eastern Division. Again. When told that in a brief meeting with local reporters before heading down to his media day responsibilities, Stoops said, "We are? Really? I thought we'd have been at the top of the pack."
Everyone chuckled, then Stoops launched into his standard answer.
"We're not worried about all that," he said. "You know that. You've heard me say it over and over again. We're worried about getting better. We're worried about putting our head down and going to work. I'm excited about this team. I'm excited about the work they've put in. So we're just ready to go to work and get better."
On the preseason all-conference teams, as voted by the league media, defensive end Bud Dupree was the only UK player represented among the 76 players on the first, second and third teams. Asked if he's frustrated at being picked last in the league, he dismissed it.
"It's always going to happen at Kentucky until we prove them wrong," Dupree said. "So hopefully with this year being my last year we'll accomplish that and be a foundation for the guys to come so they won't be picked last."
What works in UK's favor is Stoops. His approach is not flashy. But he hasn't flinched from staring into the challenges posed by the SEC and developing strength in those areas. He does not take his eye off the ball of the twin pillars of his philosophy: recruiting and development.
But sitting amid the hoopla of SEC media days, the hundreds of fans packing the hotel for a glimpse of Saban and his players, the throngs of media -- a record 1,267 credentialed this year -- and the tradition and talent at every turn (Alabama was picked to win the league and has nine first-team preseason All-SEC players out of 26 slots) it was hard not to note the stark contrast between UK and the top.
It's as stark as Alabama trying to compete with UK basketball -- except that football is a much more difficult sport to build to relevance.
UK has launched a new motto for its football program: "Change the game." It seems appropriate. There's a renewed commitment to facilities. Recruiting is stronger than it's ever been. The motto is on billboards. It's on the team's media guide. But when asked about it Thursday, Stoops said the slogan didn't originate with him.
"It did not come from me," he said. "So I'm not sure about it."
Stoops has some definite ideas about what he expects this season, and how to go about moving forward. What he does not have is a definite idea of who is going to play quarterback. Freshman Drew Barker, redshirt freshman Reece Phillips and sophomore Patrick Towles.
"We're going to be better," Stoops said. "We're definitely going to be better. We're going to be better at quarterback, that much I know. I feel like we have good options there. The guys have worked extremely hard, they've improved. I feel like our team has improved around them. A lot of our playmakers are back. You look at our leading rusher last year being a true freshman. Four of our top five wide receivers were first year in our program. Those guys are a year older, bigger, stronger, more mature. Offensive line is getting better. So put all that together with the way the quarterbacks are working, we'll be improved."
Stoops was asked the obligatory question about coaching football at a basketball school, and said he could answer with plenty of conviction about the state of football at UK.
"We have an awful lot of good things going on at Kentucky," he said. "We're in the midst of construction on a $120 million renovation in our stadium. We're in the design phase of a brand new state-of-the-art almost $100,000 square foot football-only building that will be done in 2016. Our president has hundreds of millions of dollars going on in renovations, infrastructure, student housing. So it's a great time to be there. . . . The truth is, since I've arrived at Kentucky, people have been nothing but good to me and passionate about football."
So how will he measure success? If it doesn't happen in the win-loss column this season, what will be the indicators to Stoops that what he is doing is working the way he wants it to?
"You know I'm not going to put a number on success," he said. "If we go out and prepare to win, and compete and do everything we can to win each game, then that's a success. . . . Our players are paying the price."
NOTES: Stoops confirmed that Mike Edwards, a defensive back recruit, will not join the team in the fall as he recovers from a shoulder injury. He said that he expects Edwards to join the team between semesters.
Stoops also said that he expects Commonwealth Stadium to make the change from natural grass to turf after this season.
"It looks like we will go to turf after this season," he said. "They have to come in and put a bunch of cranes on the field and tear things up anyway, and we've been thinking about it. Our field, it's been disappointing to me. Our grounds crew does a phenomenal job. They work their tails off and do an incredible job. But the fact of the matter is we can't get on that field very much."
Tuesday, August 26 2014 10:16 PM EDT2014-08-27 02:16:12 GMT
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