Stoops sees joy return to the Kentucky football team during Gator Bowl prep
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Stoops sees joy return to the Kentucky football team during Gator Bowl prep

Nick Roushabout 1 year


Article written by:Nick RoushNick Roush


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<small>(Photo: © Britney Howard | UK Athletics)</small>
[caption id="attachment_276795" align="alignnone" width="1458"] (Photo: © Britney Howard | UK Athletics)[/caption] An unprecedented college football season presented unusual challenges. Mark Stoops could not go to his old bag of tricks to find the right balance of work and play. Everything was new to everybody. Kentucky just had to grind through a difficult season to reach the finish line. "It was a challenge for them and for all of us," Stoops said Monday afternoon. "It was hard with Covid in trying to play games and going and doing fun things and even getting together in our team meeting. We tried to do it virtually but I just didn't feel the connection." Without that connection off the field, the Wildcats struggled on it. Stoops adjusted, masking up the team for 15-minute meetings with the entire group. They could not replicate the type of bonds created in a normal year, but it was better than nothing, keeping the ship afloat long enough to finish the 10-game All-SEC season 4-6 without a Covid cancellation. Emotionally and mentally drained, Stoops was willing to let his players decide if they wanted to give the postseason a go. They voted and overwhelmingly approved to play one more game, much to their coach's delight. “Without a doubt I was pleased because listen, I think for the program, for coaches, for all of us it's easy to want to do those things to talk about many years later saying, ‘Hey look at this stretch we had and look at the run that we had.’ But I would not do that at the expense of our players’ mental health. I absolutely was not going to influence them to do this and to play this game because I know I'm the one standing in front of them every day and believe me when you're standing there talking in front of about 130, 140 people every day and you look them in the eye you have a pretty good feel for what they're feeling. It was a challenge and they were spent and so I was pleased with the result of the vote," Stoops said. He's not just happy that UK gets to play one more game. After taking some time at home to exhale, the players returned to campus and built on the connections they created earlier in the year. The Kentucky football team is having fun again. "I was happy that they got a chance to get away and refresh and mentally recharge. They know I'm going to try to take care of them and make this an extremely positive experience for them in any way I can. We're going to have a good practice today and then we're going to go as a team and have a really nice dinner at Malone’s and try to spend some time together and take care of the contact tracing and really spread out, but sit and try to enjoy each other's company. I guess that's the word I keep on coming back to, I'm glad we're going and I think it's the right decision. I think mainly I feel that way because that's how they feel and I feel the joy that they have right now getting out there playing the game again that they love. It's not the normal experience. It's an away game so for them. It's a grind, it's work, it's going back and forth from home cutting into their break at a time when they've been mentally challenged and I'm excited because the team’s excited. We've had a good experience so far and you know I'm happy for them." They've improved off the field. Now they must transform it into production on the field this Saturday in Jacksonville. "Now it's time, let's go win the game," Stoops said. "Any time we get in this position that competitive nature comes out of you. You want them to enjoy themselves but we want to get better, we want to improve and we want to win.”

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