UK Striking Balance Between Focus, Fun in Bowl Prep
Mark Stoops was like a sitting duck.
Surrounded by his team, all players holding airsoft guns as part of an outing, Stoops had the aim of what seemed like 105 Wildcats trained on him.
“There’s no mercy,” Stoops said. “It’s not like you got shot one time and you put your hands up and you’re still getting tattooed. I have welts all over me.”
Pinned down, Stoops could do little but seek cover against a tree and, once hit, give up. Not that surrendering did him all that much good.
“Coach Stoops is a camper and when you camp, it don’t always help you out,” offensive lineman Bunchy Stallings said. “Coach Stoops likes to lean up against the trees and you know we’re about to find him, the first person. He had to put his red (surrender) towel on his head a couple times.”
Stoops had no one to complain to, however. After all, the team-bonding trip was his idea and his alone.
“I really wanted to do it,” Stoops said. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t really tell anybody except my ops guy; Frank Buffano was the only guy I told for a long time.”
Stoops finally told his team about the trip just minutes before they all boarded buses for Richmond Underground. He did so in full camouflage gear, hardly recognizable until he removed his mask.
“The team really enjoyed it,” tight end Greg Hart said. “It was a good change of pace for all of us and getting the coaches involved, we all had a blast.”
December has marked one big change of pace for the Wildcats, who are in the midst of preparations for a Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl matchup with No. 21 Northwestern on Friday. Making their second consecutive bowl trip, Stoops and UK are approaching this one differently than a season ago.
“I was definitely a little gung-ho at making sure we were really pushing the program,” Stoops said. “That’s still the case but there has to be some balance there. They have to enjoy what they’re doing. Camaraderie still counts and I think I had to be conscious of that.”
With a month between the end of the regular season and the bowl in Nashville, the Cats don’t have to deal with the week-after-week grind of preparing for the next opponent. They can spread around their work and sprinkle in a little more fun, both on the practice field and off.
That’s a contrast to the lead-up to the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2016, the first time Stoops had been head coach of a bowl team. Never one to ignore past lessons, Stoops has adjusted.
“We definitely will change a bit and try to get more out of this bowl practice and I felt like it obviously helped us a year ago, but we definitely need to change it up,” Stoops said.
UK, facing the unique challenge of a triple-option bowl opponent, was unable to overcome Georgia Tech last year.
“If you go crazy and have 17 practices, it turns into a grind and almost seems like a punishment,” special teams coordinator Dean Hood said. “It’s almost like an extra spring ball, but at the same time you don’t want to make it seem like a punishment.”
To hear the players tell it, this month has felt more like a reward.
“Just having fun and excitement, that always adds to it,” wide receiver Garrett Johnson said. “Coach Stoops, he’s talking about the morale of the team. So just having—not being so tight, but actually wanting to play, actually wanting to just add a little more excitement to it.”
Now, all this talk of fun and excitement doesn’t mean work has gone out the window. Prior to heading to Nashville on Christmas Eve, the goal was be positioned to shift the focus entirely to Northwestern with practices in the Music City.
“We’re getting a head start on what we need to do,” Hart said last week. “Everybody’s kind of getting back to their fundamentals and back to technique with some of these practices and then we’ll be able to go and really hit the ground running in Nashville.”
Striking a proper balance between enjoyment and focus, the Cats will be looking to finish 2017 on a high note and carry momentum into 2018.
“You can kind of see that in our environment of the team,” Hart said. “Everybody’s pretty hungry. We know how much it means, number one, to us, and we know how much it means to all these fans. We owe them the world, so we owe them this.”