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December 28, 2017
THE MODERATOR: We are joined by Coach Stoops and Coach Fitzgerald. We will start with Mark Stoops.
MARK STOOPS: You need to spend five minutes around Dan Crockett, find out why he's so successful. Appreciate all you do. This guy is a stud. Thanks to Scott Ramsey, your committee. It has been an incredible week for us.
We're looking forward to a real challenge. I have great respect for Pat, Northwestern, what they do, how they coach. We're looking forward to Friday and a great football game.
PAT FITZGERALD: Echo some of the things that Mark just shared, to Scott, the entire team here. It's been just a first class week for our young men, our families, our entire football program. Can't thank you enough.
Obviously it's great to get to know Mr. Crockett. Thank you for what you do for college football. As someone that played in two bowl games, had the opportunity to experience a bowl week, it is truly I think one of the best aspects of what our young men get to do in this college football experience. Thank you for what you do. Appreciate your friendship.
It's been a great week. Our guys have been really focused. They know the task at hand. We're playing a very athletic team, arguably the most athletic team we've played all year. They're incredibly well-coached.
You see the success building throughout the whole course of the year for Kentucky. We're going to have our hands full. Our guys will be excited to play.
THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions.
Q. Pat, this is probably not an easy answer, but as you built your program to what it is, the consistency, what have been the biggest keys to find that success and longevity?
PAT FITZGERALD: I've been incredibly fortunate to have amazing support from our administration, starting with our director of athletics, Dr. Jim Phillips, our amazing president, Morton Schapiro. You can't have staff continuity, the time of infrastructure, commitments of a $270 million facility without amazing support. Our fans have been just amazing. Our donors have been spectacular.
We're a program that I think is still in the infant stage of building something. It's special to be a part of it. It starts and ends with the ownership in our locker room. Our young men are as special as there are in the country. It's no disrespect to Kentucky's players at all. It's a unique group of young men that are true student-athletes. 43 guys that were academic Big Ten, and a 3.16 team GPA this year, in the fall, which is a team record.
I'm incredibly proud of what they're accomplishing on the field, but more importantly who they are as men and how they carry themselves all the time makes our program to be able to be as consistent as it is, our support and our young men.
Q. Mark, do you see any similarities, you've talked about wanting to build continuity at Kentucky?
MARK STOOPS: Absolutely. Had a chance to visit with Pat, spend some time with him this week. Absolutely we'd like to mirror that. Pat has been there 12 years, has a great continuity within his staff. His players represent everything you want and stand for in college football, as do ours. Very proud of our football team, what we've done, the leadership of this group, the seniors.
To build a program in the SEC is a very difficult task. Appreciate the efforts of our team and our coaches, and certainly looking forward to continuing to push the program.
Q. Mark, what do you see when you look at Justin Jackson on tape? What kind of a challenge does he present for your defense?
MARK STOOPS: He's a real challenge. He's just a complete runningback, does things right. He's explosive. He gets tough yards. He gets explosive yards. Got your hands full.
Q. Pat, one of the things that all coaches I think during bowl season talk about a lot or have to address questions about is motivation. Curious why you think that is such a big factor in bowl season. As a coach, how difficult can it be to gauge the motivation of your own players?
PAT FITZGERALD: That's a great question. I think a bowl game is similar to your opener. Sometimes if you have an immature team as you go through training camp, you go through bowl season, if those young men that are 17 to 22 years old don't look at their opponent the way they should, they get obviously complacent in their preparation. It shows. It's obvious. Only had that a handful of times, but it's obvious when that happens.
The same thing in bowl season. Somebody gets picked instead of us perception-wise. The best thing and the worst thing going right now is the coverage of our game. Our guys are probably more on Snapchat than they are sleeping, things of that nature. There's a lot of noise. Do they focus on the noise or on the task at hand?
For our guys, it's just like Mark said, what's been so fun this week, getting together, sharing war stories, things of that nature, then the relationship hopefully we build that we move forward with.
It's a I've had the privilege to have with previous head coaches we've competed against. We're all fighting the same challenges, trying to develop young men to be the best they can be. It's a one-game type of deal.
The extra month to be with the kids, to help them grow, especially for your seniors, if you're not motivated to send your seniors out in the right way, then you probably don't have the maturity you need as a ball club, and you have bigger problems than just this game.
Q. Pat, what has Justin Jackson meant to your program? On the opposite side, what is it going to be like to try to defend Benny Snell?
PAT FITZGERALD: I think Hank alluded to it earlier. Number one, as a former linebacker, when I study runningbacks when I was a player, you first look at the tough yards, short yardage, goal line, look at those times when you got more people in the box than the offense can block. What does the back do? Every time, not only does he fall forward, he drives forward. To see that leg drive, the power and the explosiveness, it was great. Here we go again. Thanks, appreciate it. Another great challenge for our defense.
Then you pop on, you start watching personnel tape, formation tape, situational tape, you see how they use him in multiple ways. They get him downhill in the run game, they use him as a wildcat quarterback, they use him in the passing game. He's just a complete back.
I think Hank alluded to it. We've had our hands full in the Big Ten. This has been an unbelievable year in the Big Ten as far as runningbacks go. We've had our hands full when we saw Saquon early on, follow it up with J.T., you now finish with Benny. Those are three as good of backs that you'll see in the country. There's obviously others in between.
What has Justin meant to our program? Everything. He's a couple first downs away from being the third all time leading rusher in Big Ten history. Probably outside of Evanston and our program, nobody knows about that. It's unbelievable. You're talking about a two-time Heisman Trophy winner and Ron Dayne. Those are the only two guys ahead of him. That guy's name is Archie Griffin.
He's irreplaceable. Once-in-a-coaching-lifetime young man. I know Saturday night I'll be asked, How are you going to replace Justin Jackson? You're not. That just doesn't happen. Someone is going to have to step up and make their mark after he's gone.
It's an honor, a privilege. He's a dual major. He's just the full package. He's a special young man.
Q. Mark, this probably isn't a game you really have to motivate your players to be up for. Do you think they have even more motivation, especially after how the regular season ended?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, without a doubt. I've been very pleased with our team, the attitude they've had towards this bowl prep. They've worked really hard back on campus, prior to getting down here in Nashville. Since we've been here, they've really been on point.
Just like Pat said, it's been fun to spend time with them. As you know, back home, we had an activity or two just getting out and playing the paint ball, air soft, whatever it was. I know I got popped a few times. Just to spend some time with our players, have a little bit of fun. That's what this is all about.
We're here to compete. Pat and I both feel, and our teams feel, as you get closer to game time, that focus, that intensity level certainly kicks up, you're ready to get out there and play football.
For the past month, it's been a lot of fun to work on the practice field with these guys, but more importantly to spend time off the field, continue to build your team, push the program in the direction you want it to go. So it's been a lot of fun.
Q. Mark, last year you had to make a lot of changes during bowl prep for the triple option. Do you have to make a lot of changes this bowl season?
MARK STOOPS: It's much nicer for us to play a conventional offense, that's for sure. But the challenge will be very similar, two very good football teams. Again, we have great respect for Northwestern. They're coached very well. They're not going to beat themselves. You have to beat them. Their players play exceptionally hard. So we'll have to definitely be on point.
Q. It seems like it's becoming more common for players who are draft prospects to skip bowl games. Have you had to have any conversations with your guys? If not, how would you handle those conversations?
MARK STOOPS: I have not. That was not a situation this year to have to really address that. I am in a situation to address some juniors. That's where I have been spending my time during this bowl prep, of getting some information back from the NFL, sitting down and having some conversations with some players and some families about some decisions some juniors have to make.
PAT FITZGERALD: Very similar to Mark, those are great problems to talk to the NFL about your juniors. 20 years ago that would have never probably happened at our program.
We obviously got some feedback pretty quickly on Clayton. Then my NFL liaison, we worked with probably 15 to 20 more organizations we think are really good set of information for Clayton and his family. When he decided to come back, with early signing, that was probably the No. 1 recruit in the 2018 class for us. I was pretty stoked up, No. 17, wearing jersey 18, was really, really, really important.
But just do it with honesty. That's the goal, is to have that happen. I mean, I get it. Each young man has a decision to make for he and his family: to play, to not play.
I missed the Rose Bowl. I broke my leg, didn't play in that game my junior year. I'm 43 years old. I can't go back and play in it again. I can't go back in the locker room with my teammates. That's selfishly me.
To impose my experience like that on our players would be unfair and unjust. I think you look at it on a case-by-case basis, you show the pros and the cons, you help the guys understand if you play here, the risk, if you don't play, here is what is going to happen, media-wise.
In the locker room, the guys are going to support the brother, that's the way it's going to go, that's the way it should be. That's what is so great about our game. That's an individual case-by-case basis based on family.
Also draft status. If you're the No. 1 pick overall, preliminary things, top 10, they tell you that, you and your family think the risk doesn't outweigh the reward. I have no problem with a kid doing that. There's definitely cons that have come along with that. I'd be there to support them.
Q. Pat, Stephen Johnson, an unheralded guy, transfer, rose to lead this team. What kind of problems could he present for you guys tomorrow?
PAT FITZGERALD: You just got to pop on the tape, see the problems he created for the SEC. He's athletic. Dual threat. When we popped him on, initially we thought, we faced a really athletic young man in Tommy Armstrong a year ago from Nebraska. Reminded us of getting ready to play Tommy as we started to watch the tape. Then the supporting cast around him. He makes great decisions. It's going to be a challenge, there's no doubt about that.
Q. With some of the team activities you've been able to have together, talking with each other before events like these, are you able to pick the brains of each other? Do those conversations stay off the field, football related?
MARK STOOPS: Without a doubt, Pat can piggyback. Pat was very gracious. He reached out to me after we were matched up against each other. I don't know if it was the next day, I called him back, said, Hey, Pat, you mind if I pick your brain a little bit? Obviously last year's bowl season didn't go the way we wanted to.
He was gracious enough to let me pick his brain, even about the bowl prep. We're about to go compete against him. He was phenomenal. I knew Pat just vaguely. I knew what type of person he was, what he stood for. So for me, I felt comfortable reaching out to him and picking his brain about that.
He was very gracious. He really helped me. Here we are about to compete against each other tomorrow. But that's the type of person he is. Then we have a chance through this week to talk about many other things.
PAT FITZGERALD: It's been my goal every bowl to get better as a head coach. When we sit in the corner office, it's a pretty cool place to be, but it's pretty lonely. When you start to try to develop your own leadership style, the way you're going to run your program, very few guys are willing to share over the phone or at national conventions.
When you get into a bowl week, absolutely I'm going to reach out. This is a great opportunity for me to start a relationship and grow and get better. I'm going to be a huge Cat fan moving forward. That's the great thing.
Last year, spending time with Pat in New York was awesome. We had a great week. Mark and I, we spent an hour, hour and a half after the first event. I think we solved world peace, every issue with the NCAA. But that's what our profession should be. We're all doing the same thing.
I'll take a step back. When we were in Chicago, we opened our practices up for high school coaches. We got Frank Linty (phonetic) from Chicago Mt. Carmel. I'm talking to coach for a half hour about how he got his team turned around to make a run in the state playoffs. It's educational as a leader.
It's been a great week, great to get to know Mark, his beautiful wife, their staff and program. I'm going to be a huge fan probably after 7:30 on Friday. We're going to compete, but it's about having fun. I think our guys have had a great time. We can't thank everybody here at the bowl enough. Nashville has been awesome, fun.
Q. Mark, can you talk about Benny Snell, what he's meant to your program this year, maybe how much you are going to have to lean on him.
MARK STOOPS: Without a doubt, Benny, he's been rock steady for two years now. He's mature beyond his years. He's that guy we need. He's extremely disciplined, hard-nosed tough, blue-collared, like Pat and I like both of our teams to be. He certainly is that.
We go as Benny goes. I think he'd be the first one to tell you it starts up front with having a physical mentality with our offensive line, creating holes, offensive coordinator being creative in ways to get him the football. But Benny has been very steady. He's meant an awful lot to us.
Q. Mark, Stephen was struggling with injuries, maybe not playing his best football at the end of the season. Have you seen more from him in practice?
MARK STOOPS: I have, yeah. It's been good for Stephen and many of our players to hit the reset button. Towards the end of the season, he was beat up. You've seen him play. You see the way he lays it on the line each and every week. He's definitely not the most physical person in stature. He took a pretty good beating throughout the season.
But he's very resilient. He's tough. It's very hard to get him out of the games, as you know. But he is healthy. Had a chance to rest up for a couple weeks, get back in the weight room, gain some weight. He's looked very good here.
THE MODERATOR: Coaches, thank you for your time. We wish you the best of luck in tomorrow's game.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports