Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops has a difficult enough job battling the likes of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher, much less having to go toe-to-toe with his own basketball coach.
That is this week’s “Big Story at Six.” Lobbying for a Taj Mahal basketball practice facility, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari used an interview in the Bahamas to declare UK a “basketball school.” Stoops tweeted his objection: “Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC. #4straightpostseasonwins.”
Talk about friendly fire. It’s not every day you see two coaches working for the same employer engaged in an argument for all the world and social media to see.
My take: Charge Calipari with the first unforced error of a season that hasn’t even started. There was no reason to drag football into his argument. All the coach had to say was, “Kentucky has a great basketball tradition and deserves the best when it comes to facilities.” Point made.
Instead, Cal’s comments made it a basketball vs. football thing, a sensitive debate that stretches back decades in UK athletics history, with plenty of bruised feelings along the way. There is that famous story (or myth) where UK football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant received a cigarette lighter for beating national power Oklahoma in the 1951 Sugar Bowl, while Adolph Rupp was awarded a Cadillac for winning another SEC hoops title.
(By the way, volleyball’s Craig Skinner or rifle’s Harry Mullins, or many other coaches of various UK sports might request equal time.)
You can understand why Stoops took offense. Imagine he’s making a home recruiting visit, trying to persuade the latest megastar prospect to play football at the University of Kentucky. Then father of megastar prospect says, “But your basketball coach says that Kentucky is a basketball school.”
By the time you read this, UK AD Mitch Barnhart will probably have engineered some sort of public truce between his two high-profile coaches, complete with a rendition of “Kumbaya,” and a pledge of how we’re all in this together.
Managing the competitive personalities of coaches is included in any athletics director’s job description. And, to their credit, both UK coaches are fighting for their respective programs.
Since the final buzzer of that first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Saint Peter’s, Calipari has been making the case for a new practice facility. You can debate the merits of Cal’s request, but it’s obvious he believes, or believes that Big Blue Nation believes, Kentucky basketball as a brand has become a bit stale, with a need for an energy reboot.
It’s all part of the John Calipari Experience that Kentucky signed up for back in 2009. Never one to shy from the spotlight, Calipari is always going to be front-and-center about pretty much everything. With Cal as coach, you never have to worry about your program going unnoticed. The flip side is that every once awhile Cal can take it just a tiny bit too far. (Example: Calipari declaring the 2010 NBA Draft might have been the “biggest day in the history of Kentucky basketball.”)
Meanwhile, Stoops has not been shy about pushing for football upgrades, be it stadium renovation, a training facility or now the planned renovation of the Nutter Field House. After all, it’s not like Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, Tennessee and the rest of UK’s competition are all resting on their laurels. In the SEC, no one is standing still.
Hat tip to the SEC Network’s Peter Burns, who tweeted, “If you find you a coach that has his team’s back like @UKCoachStoops at Kentucky, then chances are you’ll have a locker room that will do anything for that coach and success will follow.”
Indeed, Stoops’ bulldog attitude is one important reason Kentucky football has been punching above its weight. That determination has turned the 2-10 program he inherited into one that has posted two 10-win seasons in the last four years, and that owns (as he tweeted) #4straightpostseasonwins.
To paraphrase the late, great Tom Petty, Mark Stoops “won’t back down.”
Not even from his school’s basketball coach.