LEXINGTON, Ky. — Saturday seemed like an opportunity to smooth the rocky road that had emerged between Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and his men’s basketball counterpart, John Calipari.
It seemed like a logical day for mea culpas and a let’s-move-forward chorus, a time for UK athletics hatchets to be buried. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart even made a rare appearance in front of the media, ostensibly to calm the choppy seas in his department after a feud between the two coaches became public days earlier.
But it became clear quickly that the week’s wounds hadn’t yet healed – at least not on Stoops’ part.
In his first public comments since firing back on Twitter at Calipari calling Kentucky a “basketball school,” Stoops stayed the way he likes his teams to play: aggressively defensive.
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In conceding that his program has strides to make, Stoops said his tweets about Calipari’s comments this week were “in defense of my players, in defense of the work that we’ve done.”
And in the midst of a beef between the football and basketball coaches, Stoops deployed a baseball analogy, seemingly to take a shot at the advantage gap between his program and Calipari’s.
“Listen, we all know this program wasn’t born on third base,” Stoops said. “So 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 spat started Thursday, when Calipari told reporters in the Bahamas — where his Wildcats are playing in a four-game exhibition series — that Kentucky should commit to constructing a new basketball practice facility to replace the Joe Craft Center, noting that the Wildcats had to stop a recent practice because of a roof leak in the 15-year-old building.
As he pushed for an upgrade, Calipari alluded to significant facilities improvements in other sports, including football and baseball. He insisted the administration should be committed to doing the same for basketball.
“And the reason is, this is a basketball school. It’s always been that,” Calipari said, according to The Athletic. “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.”
That was enough for Stoops to spring into action, tweeting “Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC.”
“I don’t care what anybody says about their program,” Stoops said Saturday. “That’s not my business. That’s not my lane. But when you start talking about my program and others that we compete against, I mean, I don’t do that. I stay in my lane.”
Stoops said that he and Calipari had not spoken. He declined to comment on their relationship.
Calipari told Lexington’s WLEX-TV in the Bahamas on Saturday night that he “said the wrong thing” in his initial comments.
“Mark and I will be fine,” Calipari told WLEX. “We’ll get back and talk about it. I’m not real smart and sometimes it doesn’t come out the right way. That’s my Italian in me. But we’ll be fine.”
Calipari tweeted earlier in the day from the Bahamas that he’d made a mistake in discussing other programs while making his facilities pitch, adding that he’d attempted to reach out to Stoops and would again.
“I think that they’ll talk at the appropriate time, when Cal gets back from the Bahamas,” Barnhart said Saturday. “I don’t think those are conversations that are probably great over the phone. I think you want to get back face-to-face and visit a little bit and do that together. You know, they’re both grown men that are that are iconic people in our program. And I would expect and anticipate that they’ll manage that like pros.”
It was clear, though, that Barnhart didn’t appreciate how his two highest-profile coaches had handled themselves during the week.
In a wide-ranging news conference that lasted more than 40 minutes — so long that the lights in UK’s football media room, set to a timer, went out while he was speaking — Barnhart called the week’s incident “unproductive and unfortunate” and said he’d talked to Stoops and Calipari.
He said a new basketball practice facility “is not a project that we’ve put on our strategic plan,” but noted that UK has made improvements over the years at the Craft Center and will continue to explore ways to help the men’s and women’s basketball programs.
He added UK’s rent at Rupp Arena — where the men’s basketball team plays its home games — went from “a couple hundred thousand, $250,000 a year” to “almost $2 million” to help facilitate a major renovation of the downtown venue.
Barnhart conceded that he’s “not real thrilled” with the state of his department this week — “the grown-ups are going to have to figure this out and be a little better,” he said — and insisted “we will not be an entitled department; we will be grateful for what we’ve got.”
And more than once he made a point of the importance of listening to your boss.
Barnhart choked up as he talked about his early years on the job, when — facing a low approval rating among Cats fans — he offered his resignation to then-UK President Lee Todd.
“He laughed at me,” Barnhart said. “… He said, ‘I’ve had two companies that I thought were going under. I’m going to tell you the same thing I told all my employees: When it doubt, just work.’”
Barnhart also recalled that current UK President Eli Capilouto once told him to stop making public comments about a prospective Rupp Arena renovation.
Barnhart did, and though it took longer than expected, the new-look Rupp is “a pretty cool place,” he said. Capilouto “had a plan that I didn’t see,” Barnhart said, noting that “it’s amazing what happens if every once in a while you listen to someone else’s vision.”
The implication there — a call for patience in upgrading facilities — seemed clear.
And Barnhart called for perspective, noting that the staffers in the UK athletic department, including Calipari and Stoops, have been pitching in on relief efforts for flood victims in Eastern Kentucky who are “struggling with all this stuff going on there.”
“And we’re sitting here talking about, ‘My feelings (are) getting hurt,’” Barnhart said. “Seriously?”
But even as he critiqued his high-profile coaches, Barnhart was defiant about the strength of his department. Without naming names, he referenced other SEC athletic directors who had taken to Twitter for subtle digs at Kentucky.
Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek tweeted a photo of his football, men’s basketball and baseball coaches huddled together in conversation saying, “No specific reason, I just thought this was a great picture to share today. #OneRazorback.”
When Tennessee basketball player Josiah Jordan-James tweeted “Yikes” in reference to the Calipari/Stoops tiff, saying “We love each other on this side,” Volunteers athletic director Danny White replied saying he “couldn’t agree more” and calling UT an “everything school.”
Those tweets clearly stuck a nerve for Barnhart, who pointed to the longevity of his current coaches. Calipari is entering his 14th season at UK, while Stoops is starting his 10th.
“We got 44 years of experience between the athletic director and the men’s basketball coach and football coach (at) Kentucky,” Barnhart said. “Walk around the league and tell me anybody else who’s got that, and then they can start tweeting that stuff out. Couple of them have gone through some coaches pretty quickly. So yeah, I’m a little fired up about that. This league used to be a league of friendship. If this the way it’s going to go, I’m in. Let’s go play. Got me a little juiced.”
There’s a lot of that going on at UK this week.
And though Saturday didn’t seem to do much to tone down the turmoil, if there was a peacemaker, it might have been Kentucky linebacker DeAndre Square, who said he “didn’t really think about” Calipari’s comments Thursday.
Square went on about practicing Thursday. He watched film, he said, and went home.
When he got there, he watched the Wildcats basketball team play an exhibition game in the Bahamas.
“I turned it on,” Square said. “I am a basketball fan. I go to the games. I buy my own tickets. I enjoy watching college basketball and Kentucky basketball.”