‘This program wasn’t born on third base’: Stoops-Calipari feud not settling down yet

·9 min read

So much for the feud between John Calipari and Mark Stoops blowing over quickly.

Two days after Stoops took to Twitter to fire back at Calipari’s assertion that Kentucky is a basketball school and the athletics department should spend accordingly, Stoops made it clear he has no regrets about standing up for his program and UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart delivered a fiery 40-minute news conference in which he called on both coaches to act like adults moving forward.

“I don’t care what anybody says about their program,” Stoops said in his regularly scheduled post-scrimmage news conference Saturday. “That’s not my business, that’s not my lane, but when you start talking about the program and others we compete against, to me, I don’t do that. I stay in my lane.

“So, that’s in defense of my players, defense of the work that we’ve done.”

In a Thursday interview with reporters in the Bahamas, where his team is playing a four-game preseason exhibition series this week, Calipari renewed his public push to build a new men’s basketball practice facility. As he has multiple times this summer, Calipari pointed to recent facility investments in football and other Olympic sports as proof it was time for his program to take its turn at the front of the line, but this time Calipari was more adamant in the comparison.

“The reason is, this is a basketball school,” Calipari said, according to The Athletic. “It’s always been that. Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. I mean, they are. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win 10 games and go to bowls. At the end of the day, that makes my job easier and it makes the job of all of us easier. But this is a basketball school. And so we need to keep moving in that direction and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Entering their 10th season working together at Kentucky, John Calipari and Mark Stoops engaged in a public argument this past week about their sport’s importance to the athletics department. Charles Bertram/Herald-Leader file photo
Entering their 10th season working together at Kentucky, John Calipari and Mark Stoops engaged in a public argument this past week about their sport’s importance to the athletics department. Charles Bertram/Herald-Leader file photo

Stoops then quote-tweeted a link to The Athletic story with the note, “Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC? #4straightpostseasonwins.” Kentucky’s football coach also retweeted reporters who called Calipari’s comment “insulting” to the football team and noted that the football team had experienced more success than the men’s basketball program over the last several seasons.

Stoops and Calipari have not spoken since the Thursday tweets. After Stoops’ news conference, Calipari tweeted he had tried to reach Stoops on Thursday and would try to do so again. In the tweet, Calipari said comparing UK to other athletics departments was “my bad” and pledged to continue to support the football program.

If Barnhart has his way, that tweet will represent an end to the public sparring match, but Stoops’ comments Saturday made it clear the rift between the school’s two highest-profile coaches is real.

“They’re both grown men that are iconic people in our program,” Barnhart said. “I would expect and anticipate they’ll manage that like pros. I would anticipate they get in there and have solid conversations and figure out how to go. That doesn’t mean they’ll have to have dinner every night together or whatever.”

Where things stand with Kentucky basketball facilities

In February, UK’s Board of Trustees approved a $30 million project that would include the construction of a new indoor track facility, renovation of the Nutter Field House for the football program and the replacement of videoboards at Kroger Field.

The men’s and women’s basketball programs have practiced in the Joe Craft Center since 2007. Since then, a new football training facility was constructed and Kroger Field was renovated for a total price of more than $150 million.

A $310 million renovation to the Central Bank Center and Rupp Arena, which is owned by the city of Lexington but was financed in part by increased rent payments from UK, is nearing completion. In 2018, UK spent $4 million to upgrade the locker rooms at the Joe Craft Center.

During the Bahamas interview, Calipari said he wanted UK to construct a new basketball practice facility with an adjoining museum celebrating the history of the men’s basketball program in the heart of UK’s campus. He said he would raise funds for the project on his own if needed but also called for the state legislature to earmark funds for the project.

Barnhart confirmed a new basketball practice facility is not part of the department’s current facilities plan. Instead, the focus is on renovating Memorial Coliseum, home of the volleyball and women’s basketball teams, planning for a new tennis facility and completing the indoor track facility/Nutter Field House project.

“We’ve enhanced (the current basketball practice facility) over and over again,” Barnhart said. “It continues to be a state-of-the-art facility. We take really good care of it. We’ll continue to make improvements as we see fit and we’re working through that. We always do that. We always have. We’ve never stopped looking at ways we can continue to enhance our program.”

That answer is unlikely to satisfy Calipari’s demands, but Barnhart cautioned the athletics department has to operate within the larger university capital projects plan. Perhaps suggesting a path forward for Calipari, Barnhart recounted a story about UK President Eli Capilouto directing him to stop talking publicly about the athletics department’s desire for Rupp Arena renovations close to a decade ago. Barnhart said once he took that direction to heart, plans for Rupp Arena renovations finally took off.

Can Stoops-Calipari relationship be mended?

Calipari is next scheduled to talk to reporters after his team’s final Bahamas exhibition game Sunday. How he responds to some of Stoops’ Saturday comments will say much about the next step in the feud.

“We all know this program wasn’t born on third base,” Stoops said. “Some may, but I can promise you this football team didn’t wake up on third base. Did a lot of work. We did a lot of work. The commitment from the Joe Crafts and so many different people, Mitch and Dr. Capilouto, so many people have done so much that you have to have the respect and appreciation for it.”

Stoops said he is proud of UK’s rich men’s basketball history before saying his program is trying to create its own history now. Multiple times during his comments, Stoops said he had no desire to defend himself.

“I will defend my players and the staff and the people and the Big Blue Nation,” Stoops said. “I will defend the people that sacrifice. … I know how difficult it is to come to these games, how expensive it is, how hard it is to get into the stadium, the parking. It’s tough. It’s a fantastic atmosphere, and I cannot thank them enough. We want to continue to see that. That’s what I defend.”

Barnhart opened his comments by acknowledging he usually defaults to keeping any issues in house instead of discussing them publicly, but the athletics director’s decision to address reporters Saturday represented an admission the issue had spiraled out of control. While Barnhart attributed some of the blame on a slow summer news cycle that provided little else for media to talk about and took particular issue with other Southeastern Conference programs taking the opportunity to take shots at UK, he made no effort to sugarcoat the tension within the department.

At one point in the 40-minute media session, Barnhart said the department “desperately needs to play games.” He pointed to recent flooding in Eastern Kentucky as an example of a real problem worth worrying about.

“Not real thrilled with where we are,” Barnhart said. “The grownups are going to have to figure it out, be a little better. I think sometimes you get a little success you can be a little entitled. We’re going to make sure we’re not entitled. … We will not be an entitled department. We will be grateful for what we’ve got.

“When we have the platform to be grateful, it’s amazing what happens out of all of that. You find a little joy in where you are instead of trying to pick at the things that are wrong. We won’t be that group. I’ll teach it that way from my end. You can either join me in the journey and we’ll have some fun and get there, or you don’t.”

It is easy to draw parallels between the Calipari-Stoops argument and the common theory that UK’s focus on basketball during Adolph Rupp’s tenure led legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to leave Lexington.

Asked if fans should worry about a similar outcome now, Barnhart pointed to the 44 years of combined experience between himself, Calipari and Stoops at UK as proof that Kentucky remains one of the more stable athletics departments in the country regardless of the current tension but stopped short of guaranteeing both coaches will stay in Lexington through the end of their careers.

“I can’t speak to that,” he said. “That’s their call, but I will tell you I’ll be there with them, I’ll walk with them, both of them. … They don’t have to fear the administration. The administration has been right here the whole time. We’ve got a president that has been right here the whole time. That isn’t changing. They’ve been provided every opportunity to do the very things they want to do to be successful. That isn’t changing as long as I’m in the chair.

“We will have that support. If that’s not good enough, coaches change a lot in today’s world.”

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