Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Morriss' departure shakes Wildcats

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Junior receiver Derek Abney came through the double doors at the Kentucky football practice complex with his head hanging and his eyes reddened by tears.

Junior offensive tackle Antonio Hall walked slowly in front of him, his face frozen in a blank, sleepy stare.

Coach Guy Morriss met with the Wildcats on Tuesday and confirmed rumors that he was leaving to coach at Baylor. A formal announcement was expected today in Waco, Texas.

The Wildcats left the meeting dazed and disappointed.

"The future looked really bright with the program we had," said Abney, who set a national record with six kick returns for touchdowns in 2002. "I don't want to say we have a dimmer future, but it's not as solid.

"No one in this program believes we could not go to a bowl next year. We've got the players, we've got the resources. Will we have the coach?"

Morriss signed a contract on Monday in Texas, his home state. Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart said UK couldn't match Baylor's lavish offer.

Hall took the news hard, but understood Morriss' decision.

"Coach Morriss was close to me and my life, not only as a coach, but as a friend and a mentor," Hall said. "He has a family, he's starting to have grandkids, and money talks, especially in this business. You've got to go where you're going to get paid."

Junior quarterback Jared Lorenzen said he was happy for Morriss.

"It's a business decision. This is a business. That's what everybody needs to understand," Lorenzen said. "It's about money. He's not abandoning us at all.

"I would love to have had him stick around and had him win a couple of games with us, but he's going down there and he's back home. And that's good for him."

Morriss evaded a group of reporters gathered outside the team meeting room and was unavailable for comment.

Football sports information director Tony Neely said Morriss invited nine assistant coaches to leave Lexington and join him at Baylor.

Lorenzen didn't know if any other coaches had decided to leave. He didn't expect Morriss' departure to trigger a mass exodus of players, though.

"A couple of guys got a little emotional, but we're going to have to get on, just keep working to get better," Lorenzen said. "We're all going to stick around."

Abney said Kentucky's veteran players are hardened by previous obstacles, starting with Hal Mumme's resignation - under a cloud of an NCAA investigation - in 2001. Abney is among a group that also endured back-to-back 2-9 seasons and NCAA sanctions that included a postseason ban this season.

"We've gone through adversity so many times before that there's no reason we're going to let another one stop us this time," he said.

Abney doesn't have a preference for what he'd like to see in Morriss' successor.

"I don't care if we're running or throwing or fumbling," he said. "If we're winning, that's fine with me."

Lorenzen is putting a positive spin on what will be the third UK coach in four seasons.

"That's just more people I've had knowledge from. It's something I've gotten used to," he said.

Morriss guided the Wildcats to a 7-5 record in 2002, its best record since 1998.

Hall said no matter who the next coach is, it won't derail the program's upward momentum.

"We won't let that happen," he said. "Whoever comes in, we're ready to embrace him with open arms. We hope he's ready to work as hard as we're going to work. We're expecting a lot of things out of him."

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