The University of Kentucky football program is the winningest in school history, but Mark Stoops has brought a new level of success to Lexington.
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THE HISTORY OF THE KENTUCKY WILDCATS FOOTBALL TEAM IS FULL OF WHAT-IFS AND NEAR-MISSES.
What if Bear Bryant had remained in Lexington for more than eight seasons if he hadn’t reached an impasse with Adolph Rupp and UK administrators? What if Marty Moore had taken a knee in the Peach Bowl versus Clemson in 1993? What if Tim Couch’s offensive coordinator, Mike Leach, had remained on for a third year? What if Jared Lorenzen had held on to the ball in the 2003 game versus Florida? What if Kentucky hadn’t lost to South Carolina the week before their upset victory against No. 1 LSU in 2007?
What if, instead of allowing the Bluegrass Miracle to happen in 2002, someone had just knocked down the dang football versus LSU?
There hasn’t been a bowl victory in 22 years. For the last 17 years, there have been no victories against Tennessee. For the last 16 years, there have been no victories against Florida. Anyone who grew up in Big Blue Nation was well-versed in all of those painful numbers, streaks, and slumps, and was taught to accept and live with their fate as the SEC’s token basketball school.
“There’s no denying it takes a toll,” said Andre Woodson, the captain of one of Kentucky’s few rays of football light. He led the team to back-to-back 8-5 seasons at quarterback, including a 2007 victory against LSU and the start of the school’s first three-year bowl win streak. “But, if you look closely, I believe there were moments of optimism. Seasons and games when you could see what this program and fan base were capable of; all they needed was the proper person to come in and teach this team and town how to regularly achieve that potential. That correct individual has arrived.”
Woodson is referring to Mark Stoops, the team’s head coach. Stoops is in his ninth season as Kentucky’s coach, but unlike Bryant, there was no eighth-year jitters with the employers or with the game. John Calipari has decided to go all-in. The once-sleepy Commonwealth Stadium has been converted into the boisterous entertainment palace of Kroger Field, which has gobbled up Florida at home for the first time since 1986, then powered a 42-21 thrashing of LSU in the last two weeks.
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Working two jobs took a physical and emotional toll on him, but it also reinforced something in him.
“It was certainly one of the best periods of my life,” he recalled, “because I was doing what I loved, teaching football.”
Stoops departed after one season to work at Wyoming, Houston, Miami, Arizona, and Florida State, among other places. He eventually received the call to interview for the head-coaching position at Kentucky when he was 45 years old.
His presentation to Mitch Barnhart, the athletic director, was distinct from the others. Stoops said he wanted to keep things simple at a period when the spread system was all the rage, enabling coaches to utilize inferior talent. They’d be a tough football squad that ran the ball well and played strong defense.
Granted, they weren’t designed for it, but that was the point of recruitment. He felt that with a little more time, he could restructure the roster and provide a more stable basis for the future.
“I’m not sure we would have won as many games if we could have been better offensively and thrown the ball around,” Stoops said. “I’m not sure how long that would have lasted.”
“You know and I know that if there was a simple fix here, then the NCAA would obviously be stepping in to examine it,” he said.
It turned out that a physical style of football, rather than the NCAA probing about, was music to Barnhart’s ears. With the Hal Mumme Air Raid in the late 1990s, Kentucky was a pioneer in the spread offense. However, as entertaining as it was to watch, it had not proven to be long-term.
Barnhart want a new mentality and culture. He observed a program that lacked strength, toughness, and a defensive commitment. He wanted someone who shared his beliefs and would place a greater focus on recruitment.
Stoops’ pitch was ideal.
“Mark and his team have put in a tremendous amount of work, and I’m really pleased of them,” Barnhart said. “Our squads reflect Mark’s love for the game as well as his toughness,” he said.
Marrow, who is now STOOPS’ ASSOCIATE head coach and recruiting coordinator, recalls receiving a call from Stoops one day and hearing him say, “I believe we can accomplish something terrific, but I need you to come to Kentucky with me.”
Marrow had good reason to trust Stoops. Their families have been friends for a long time. Stoops’ uncle recruited Marrow’s elder brothers. Marrow and Stoops used to play together as youngsters before becoming teammates in football and basketball in high school. Stoops’ duty, Marrow said, was to get him the ball and then get out of the way.
They began chatting about recruitment as they discussed the idea of rejoining at Kentucky. Marrow checked up Lexington’s location in relation to their home state of Ohio, including how near it was to Cincinnati, Columbus, and Youngstown.
Marrow said, “Oh man.” “I agree with you, Mark; we have the potential to cause some havoc.”
Leaving one buddy for another was tough, but Marrow packed his belongings and hit the road to recruit.
“Everyone was attempting to recruit the South at the time,” Marrow added. “To be honest, Kentucky was starting to seem like a joke.” Kentucky was a place that no one wanted to visit. So we decided to visit our native state. ‘Hey, you don’t have to go to the Big Ten to play great football.’ Let’s lock down Kentucky and tell them Ohio guys.
“It was a clear message, and it worked.”
It wasn’t easy, to be sure.
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Meanwhile, Stoops awaited the improvements he needed from the administration in order to entice top-tier recruits: the stadium restoration and a new $45 million football-only facility were the two main pieces of the jigsaw.
Kentucky’s football budget in 2014 was about $16 million. It’s now worth $29 million.
Barnhart said they still need to figure out how to construct an indoor practice facility, which is now standard in the SEC, and a source claimed Kentucky’s assistant coach pay pool is still one of the lowest in the league.
“He’s still using a short stick,” stated the insider. “They haven’t quite gotten up to us yet.”
However, one gets the impression that Stoops, deep down, enjoys being a step or two behind here and there. The only person who works harder than the one in first place is the one who is following them down. Kentucky has been chasing the SEC’s upper echelon for so long, and Stoops has been grinding it out on the sidelines for so long, that a Big Blue chip will always be sitting atop their shoulder pads, no matter what success might appear around the next corner, whether that corner is this weekend in Athens, Georgia, or somewhere else down the road.
“I believe it’s simple for us to market the fact that we’re improving, that we’re developing people, that we’re providing them the right medication to help them achieve their objectives,” Stoops says. “I can assure you that our Kentucky guys like playing here, and I enjoy coaching them.” If money and other incentives can be used to persuade people to switch programs, so be it.
“We will, however, invest in our players. We’re going to put money into the relationship aspect and get the most out of it. And now everyone knows that we’re going to win some football games at Kentucky as well. What could be more enjoyable than winning football games?”