Losing Towles, Losing Faith

Patrick Towles. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer

Patrick Towles. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer

Patrick Towles’ abrupt departure only further indicates the disarray of the Kentucky football program.

On the one hand, it reduces the clutter around next year’s QB situation: returning “starter” Drew Barker and the next incoming “can’t miss” freshman phenom, Gunnar Hoke.

But you have to wonder. If Towles was not the right man for this job, why did it take Kentucky’s coaches three months to figure it out? Maybe they weren’t particularly high on Barker either.

Everybody wanted Towles to succeed. From the moment he entered the Mississippi State game in 2012, during what was supposed to be his redshirt freshman year, he was hailed as the savior of the program. He threw a 32-yard touchdown pass on his first drive, then got hurt and sat out the entire 2013 season.

In the meantime, new coaches took over, and Towles became the cover boy for the UK resurgence. He looked the part. He was big; he could throw; he could run; and he was smart, articulate and good-looking.

But something was missing. Judgment. Poise. Vision. Or maybe just a competent offensive line. As the 2014 UK season went from 5-1 to 5-7, Towles went from Paddy Ice to Patty Melt, with happy feet and a run-from-danger mentality. And soon, Drew Barker became the new cover boy.

Though he fought off the Barker competition this fall, Towles repeated the ups and downs of his previous season almost exactly. And after very publicly standing behind him week after week, Mark Stoops and Shannon Dawson suddenly withdrew their support.

It didn’t take a Dr. Phil to see that the chemistry between Towles and Barker was never very good, and perhaps it split the team. We don’t know what went on during the Cats’ closed practices or their private conversations. Unlike John Calipari, who can’t stop extemporizing every time he’s asked a question, Stoops’ answers to almost everything are practiced and rote, revealing almost nothing.

And the nature of Towles’ announcement – shared on Instagram, of all things, immediately after that last demeaning loss of the season – suggested this was not a cordial situation.

Anything about any Kentucky sport always begs a comparison to basketball, so let’s look at a similar situation from that camp.

Kyle Wiltjer joined the Cats in 2011 as part of a freshman class bound for history: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Despite flashes of great outside shooting, he never quite fit in.

A little too slow, not enough upper-body strength, didn’t play much defense. So after two lackluster seasons, he announced he was transferring to Gonzaga. He could certainly play college ball, just not Cal ball. And nobody questioned it.

Why? Because Calipari has such a firm grasp on what he’s doing and what he expects. He says it and everyone nods. It’s a certainty that Stoops does not exude.

Okay, it’s an unfair comparison. Stoops is in his first head-coaching assignment, and the SEC is tough duty. When Stoops has 25 years of experience under his belt, his vision will appear as clear as Kentucky’s more-accomplished coach and his decisions will be considered sacred.

But right now, Stoops is running a program that Patrick Towles, for one, wanted to escape. Clearly, he and whoever is advising him saw no future for this team next year and a better future somewhere else.

Did Stoops try to stop him? Or, like Calipari with Wiltjer, did he say, “Kid, I think this isn’t the place for you”? Maybe we’ll know someday. Maybe Stoops and Dawson saw something in Barker – or maybe in Hoke – that convinced them the program would be better without Towles, addition by subtraction.

It might work out for Towles. It certainly worked out for Wiltjer. He switched to Gonzaga, nearer to his Oregon home, with a freer-flowing offense that saw him average 17 a game for a 35-3 Elite Eight team, and this year, he’s averaging close to 20.

But if he wasn’t going to improve his defense and rebounding, get tougher with the ball and get stronger in the blocks, he wasn’t going to get more than his 6-8 minutes per game at Kentucky.

Of course, at the time Wiltjer left, Calipari was putting together teams that went to two Final Fours, including the historic 38-1 run of a year ago, and the current bunch, until this week, ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Until Stoops gains the same complete, unspoken control of the situation, he’ll always be haunted by the question, “Was the Towles situation one big, mishandled mistake?” VT