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UK’s Stoops keeping focus on people, safety of players’ families during COVID-19 pandemic

With how quickly things were changing, University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops could see the writing on the wall.

His team was in its final days in Lexington before spring break and news was breaking seemingly every 15 minutes. The remainder of spring practice had not yet been canceled, but Stoops had every reason to believe it would be.

“We had a pretty good indication by the time that Thursday afternoon rolled around and Friday that our players would not be reporting back and that it would be very difficult for me as the head coach responsible for so many people coming back from spring break to all get together in one room,” Stoops said. “I mean, when we put all of our whole team and our whole staff in there, there’s upwards of 120, 130, 140 people depending on who’s all in that meeting.”

UK football head coach Mark Stoops (right) says his job has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (UK photo)

Stoops could not in good conscience rationalize the idea of continuing to lead a football program in the way he was used to. Not with the responsibility he had to his team in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. So he and his staff started to plan.

“We tried to prepare for that as best we could,” Stoops said. “Obviously things have changed quite a bit since then.”

Indeed they have. Stoops’ job has changed with them.

“Right now, it’s about us checking on our players and checking on their families to make sure that they are safe and doing the things necessary to stay safe,” Stoops said. “That’s definitely number one priority for us, is player safety and all their families.”

So far, so good on that front. No Kentucky players have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with Stoops checking in daily with UK’s athletic training staff, so academics are next on the docket.

“We have virtual tutor sessions that are set up through our people that handle academics and they’ve done a fantastic job in that area,” Stoops said. “Really, greatly appreciate them and our support staff and what they’re doing to help our players through this difficult time. Our university has been fantastic with Dr. (Eli) Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart and making sure we give them the tools necessary to be successful, whether that’s sending them an iPad or a computer.”

Stoops and the Wildcats expected to be in the final weeks of preparations for the Blue-White Spring Game right now. Instead, they’re separated and relying on technology to communicate and get classwork done. Football, by necessity, has taken a backseat, at least in terms of player-coach interaction.

The sport, however, remains important to the people who would, under normal circumstances, be spending hours together each day at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility. Individual players all have goals, while coaches and players alike are collectively invested in continuing UK football’s ongoing ascendance.

“Well, this will be a great test for us,” Stoops said. “Because our players are on their own. Much like back in the old days when I played, it was kind of on you to kind of do the development through the summer.”

A few years ago, Stoops might have been more concerned about that challenge. Now, with the culture that has been built in Lexington on the strength of Stoops’ “Recruit and Develop” mantra, players are better positioned to handle the develop half of that more independently than ever.

“So right now,” Stoops said, “it’s an opportunity for our players to show the discipline they have, to work extremely hard on their own.”

It’s not as if UK’s staff will be passive though. From the moment Stoops sensed things were changing, he and his staff began to plan. From a football perspective, strength and conditioning is the priority.

“If you script something out on a piece of paper and send it to them, I’m not sure that’s most beneficial for them,” Stoops said. “So we are doing things to demonstrate and to video and to send it to them to stay on top of that with the development piece.

“So it gets down to the discipline of our players, it gets down to the motivation of our players and it also gets down to the organization of us to provide them with as much as we can to help them through this difficult time and to continue to their bodies and build their minds and develop in all areas of their life. That’s extremely important to us.”

Important, yes, but still secondary to everything else going on.

“A lot of times in our world, it’s easy to be selfish because you need to be in some ways to develop your programs, but you need to step back right now, and you better think about all of the people that you’re responsible for,” Stoops said. “In our football building, the amount of people that this directly affects is a lot. I need to concentrate on that, and I need to concentrate on this community and help this community the best I can, to help, and to be a small piece of the help.”

From UK Athletics

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