For our Men’s Issue, we wanted to feature some fellas who did the BBN proud... Naturally, our first pick was this guy. Fresh off the historic Citrus Bowl win, Coach Mark Stoops is looking ahead at what all that hard work will mean in the 2019/2020 season... and beyond. On a rainy day, we sat down with Stoops between a live taping of Kentucky Sports Radio on site at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility to get his perspective on his team, his pasttimes and what great recruitment looks like to him.
TOPS: What is your favorite thing about Lexington?
Coach Stoops: The people. We love living here. The people make this place. They made us feel like we were at home from day one.
If you weren’t the coach, where would you watch the games?
The Woodford Reserve Club. We have meetings there from time to time. Just looking around that room, it’s so beautiful. You can go out on that deck and overlook the field. There are great seats. You also get to hear the game and the crowd well.
What’s your favorite part about coaching at UK?
Working with the players and getting everybody to pull the rope in the same direction. It is a tall task to get everyone in the organization on the same page. When it all comes together, there is no greater feeling. The work that goes into it, the preparation and the respect for the game and players is most important to me. The outcome is what it is. But the building of the team is the real challenge.
Tell us about the emotion of the winning the Citrus Bowl.
It was definitely a great feeling and a culmination of a lot of hard work over a lot of years. The feeling and joy that you have for those players, in particular those 16 seniors who have been through the highs and lows, that’s what it’s all about. There is no value or dollar amount you can put on that. There is nothing that can compare to the gratification you have for the players and their families.
How has that success changed the mindset within the program?
As soon as the game was over, your mind immediately goes to what’s next. And that is obviously recruiting. But it’s also getting our arms around these players and this team. I think I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the players returning because they saw the blue print. They saw the sacrifice. That doesn’t mean we know how to follow it day to day right now. But they have a clear vision of what it takes to be successful based on what they saw from the leadership of the team this year.
How have players like Josh Allen and Benny Snell impacted recruiting?
It definitely has a positive impact. They see the players and the development. I really appreciate all the coaches, strength and conditioning, nutritionalists and all the people who help develop these young men. A great example of that is this year’s draft. We had 8 players at the NFL combine. And 7 of those players are 3 stars or 2 stars. So that means there is something good going on in the walls of this building. We are very intentional in developing them in all areas of their lives. And I appreciate all the hard work that goes into that.
What traits did you see in Benny and Josh during their recruiting phase that made them stand out to you?
We’ve had a lot of players that have produced beyond the expectation coming out of high school. I think we go much deeper than the talent threshold. We have to have talent to compete in the SEC and to win games. But we look for other characteristics and look at their demeanor. We trust our evaluation. Our coaches do a good job evaluating on film, and then we get to know them. One thing those two had in common is they had big hearts and determination. It’s hard to measure a player’s heart.
What’s the hardest part about playing in the SEC?
It is brutally competitive. It is by far the best league in college football. There are exceptional coaches but it’s the talent of the players. There is a lot of talent in the south and there are not many teams in the SEC willing to lose those players without a fight in the recruiting.
Positive development on the defensive line seems to have a direct correlation with success in the SEC. Talk about how you’ve achieved that at UK in the past couple years.
It goes back to the root of the things I care most about, and that is recruiting and development. We recruit good players and we develop them. What has helped us is that we played a lot of guys in those positions, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. We’ve had a lot of rotation, which helps with development. It keeps guys engaged and it helps get some plays under their belt and helps them build for the future.
What do you expect from Terry Wilson next season?
We expect growth. He is coming back as a junior with a full year under his belt. There is no replacing that experience. He is a hard worker. He is physically getting better, getting stronger, working hard in the weight room, becoming a more vocal leader. We expect big things from him.
Talk about how the leadership of Mitch Barnhart has affected the success of the football team and the rest of the athletic programs at UK.
He has a great deal to do with the success of our football program and success across the campus. You look around at this campus, the programs we have and the coaches we have. It is elite company. It definitely humbles me to be a part of it that. I greatly appreciate Mitch’s support. He has been rock solid since I’ve been here. He is heavily invested in all of our players, coaches and athletes. He works extremely hard. He knows everyone on campus, knows everyone’s name. It is a relationship business. He has been an unbelievable support of our student athletes.
How does the support of UK fans impact the program?
The support of the Big Blue Nation is going to take us to a new level. I greatly appreciate the support. It’s not easy going to a football game. It’s expensive. You have to deal with the crowds. It’s an all-day affair with the tailgate and the long games. So I have always appreciated the support. And we need that. When I say we are all in this together, it’s not a cliché. It’s true. When we walk into a stadium that is rocking, and it’s at capacity, that makes a difference. It affects our team and the way we play and the excitement we have. It also affects recruitment. So the support of Big Blue Nation is extremely important and we need it. We work hard for the fans. We want to represent this state with pride.
What would surprise people to know about you?
People think I am boring. My mother would tell you I am the fun one of the family. I love taking my boys fishing, doing a bit of golfing. I keep it boring in interviews.
SEC Player of the Year in 1985 and 1986. #2 on Kentucky’s all-time career scoring list. Played 7 seasons in the NBA. 1989 NBA Slam Dunk Champion. This living legend now resides in Lexington and lends his voice for sports commentary as a co-host on WVLK.
TOPS: What brought you back to Lexington after living all over the world?
Kenny Walker: I love the UK fans. I love the city of Lexington. I love the state of Kentucky. This is all from a guy that grew up in Georgia. I fell in love with basketball. And Kentucky is the king of basketball. The guys who play here have the greatest respect for the program. Even though I can’t put on that blue and white anymore, I can be the greatest ambassador for the university.
When you go out, do people instantly recognize you?
Well, not to brag, but because I am so tall, people always think “that guy must play basketball”. To my surprise, a lot of people still know who I am, which is amazing because I graduated over 30 years ago. What made that era so unique is that you’ve got a lot of people who played and stayed at the school for 3 and 4 years. People got to know us and our families. We actually had a senior night. Now it’s different. It’s still exciting but the fans don’t have enough time to get to know the players like they did with me, Jack Givens, Tony Delk, Sam Bowie and Kyle Macy.
Favorite memory of playing at UK?
The one that stands out for me personally is senior night because my mom and dad were out on the court with me for my final regular season game at Rupp Arena. That was a very emotional experience to see tears in their eyes, and the pride that they had in me for my basketball career and getting my degree. That was a great moment to be able to share with my parents.
What was the highlight of your career?
I am known for winning the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. What made that bittersweet for me was, unfortunately I lost my father 2 days before the dunk contest. I wasn’t sure if I was going to compete, but my mother encouraged me. To win the dunk contest under such tough circumstances, I proved to a lot of people that you can overcome any obstacle in life.
Who do you think dunks the best right now in college basketball?
I would love to say a Kentucky guy. We have Herro and Keldon Johnson. But I have to answer the question honestly. When I look at a guy like Zion Williamson from Duke, he is doing some things on the college level that we haven’t even seen LeBron James and Michael Jordan do on a pro level. I just wish he was wearing Kentucky blue instead of Duke blue.
Who is your favorite player on today’s team?
I’ve loved Keldon Johnson from day one. I love the energy and the emotion he plays with. I think that is what it takes to be a great player. That’s just something you can’t teach. I also like Ashton Hagens. Since he has had the opportunity to be the full time point guard, I think he plays more comfortably on the court knowing that he is going to get the minutes. I like watching those guys, but the key to this Kentucky team is PJ Washington. He is the best pro prospect.
How do we look heading into the tournament?
After getting onto a rocky start against Duke, Coach Cal didn’t lose faith in his team. He continued to work with them. They always get better around Christmastime. That is the sign of a good coach: knowing how to develop a team. I like where we are now. We are more confident. We are playing better.
Any advice for the team heading into the tournament?
Stay humble. When you are winning and everyone is patting you on the back, it’s great that the fans are happy, but you can’t get complacent. Coach Cal has been through this so many times. He will have to find different ways to keep the team hungry and humble. The minute you think you are better than you are, that’s when complacency sets in. You can’t forget what has made you successful as a team. Once you start thinking about individual goals, that’s when you divide the team.
You won SEC Player of the Year twice. Who do you predict will win this year?
We have several candidates with Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans, but I am going to go with PJ Washington. He does so many things well.
How does Coach Cal compare to Eddie Sutton or Joe B. Hall?
All of the coaches have different personalities. Calipari is more charismatic and exciting and I would have loved to play for him. He is more of a player’s coach. He has an open style that allows the players to use their creativity. Coach Sutton was more of a stern disciplinarian.
If you’re a die-hard Kentucky fan, you know Matt Jones. Kentucky Sports Radio has become an essential news source for the BBN. The team launched KSBar & Grille in August and he’s on Hey Kentucky! weeknights on LEX18.
TOPS: What is a day in the life of Matt Jones like?
Matt Jones: I get up and go to either Lexington or Lousiville, and do the radio from ten to noon. Handle a lot of business stuff for the website and bar in the afternoon. We tape our TV show at 4:30. If there are games at night, I do the games. Occasionally I get to do nothing. At this time of year, that is rare. It’s a lot but I enjoy it. It’s very busy during the season.
What is your favorite part of your work on KSR?
Two things. One is interacting with fans. Its been great to be an uplifting thing for fans and to see the impact the show has for people. The second is being able to help people follow their passion. We have been able employ a lot of people in the dream of covering sports. We have 6 full time employees on the website. We have 4 on the radio, 6 on the TV show.
KSR has a huge following. What do you attribute that to?
We stay connected to the fans. Journalists in sports for a long time didn’t think about their audience. I don’t think they thought about who we are marketing to and what they want to see. And because we are fans, people could connect more. We are fans, not journalists. Most all of us are from Kentucky. We just caught an opening and hit it and it’s been really successful.
Why is KSBar the best place to watch the game?
We designed it with the idea of giving UK fans exactly what they want. We wanted to get away from a corporate feel. The food is really good. I wanted it to be good, but I am not a cook. I think the food is far superior to other sports bars.
What was the most exciting moment of the football season for you?
For me it was beating Florida because it had been 31 years. It was the symbol that Kentucky was back and ready to make a move.
Any advice for Stoops for next season?
Ha! No advice! He has really hit his groove here. He has given Kentucky fans what they have always wanted. They have always wanted a program that they can be proud of, and that is competitive. If you are a Kentucky football fan, I don’t know how you couldn’t be happy right now.
Any predictions for the NCAA basketball tournament?
I think Kentucky is going to be really good. I think they have a chance to win it all. They have the talent. They always play better at the end of the year. They have a chance to win the whole thing.
What’s next for you?
I have been doing some national stuff for ESPN and I will continue doing that. I am contemplating running for Senate. I am going to decide that this summer. But whatever I do, it will be where I can make the biggest impact and be happy. I put a big price tag on happiness. I have sacrificed career opportunities because I have a desire to be happy. And that is another big part of my success. I enjoy what I do.
What do you do in your spare time?
I read a lot. I enjoy spending time with my small group of people I am close to. I like to get away. Kentucky is awesome but it can be overwhelming sometimes, so I love going to places where nobody knows me.
Basketball or football?
TV or radio?
Radio. It is more intimate. It’s a better way to showcase your real personality. I think you are 100% yourself on radio in a way you aren’t anywhere else.
Pizza or wings?
Wings. I wouldn’t have always said that, but we make really great wings at KSBar and I’ve grown to like them.
Beer or bourbon?
Bourbon, for sure.
photos by Dr. Michael Huang | special thanks to UK Athletics & Kentucky Sports Radio | interview by Kristen Oakley