The University of Kentucky has made official what Matt Jones and the folks at KentuckySportsRadio.com reported earlier today — that Mark Stoops has been hired as the new Wildcat football coach. Stoops comes from Florida State where as coordinator he’s taken the Seminoles’ defense from near the bottom of the ACC a few few years ago all the way to the top of the national statistical charts this season.
Stoops is the brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Bob won the 2000 BCS championship and has led the Sooners to numerous BCS bowls since. His other brother, Mike, is currently the defensive coordinator for Bob… but he struck out in an eight-year span as Arizona’s head coach.
Whether the 45-year-old Mark is more like Bob or Mike is anyone’s guess, but Kentucky’s program is certainly closer to Arizona’s than Oklahoma’s in terms of tradition. And for those UK fans who like to worry, Stoops played college football at Iowa and if he has any success in Lexington, well, you know you’ll have to put up with rumors about a return to the Hawkeyes at some point. (Of course, Tennessee fans once worried that Derek Dooley would someday be lured to Georgia when he was hired in Knoxville, so you might not want to let the “will he leave if he has success” thing keep you up at night just yet.)
Stoops makes sense in terms of age, up-and-comer reputation, and a defense-first mentality that fits the SEC mold. He does not make sense in terms of finding a coach with some experience running a program. Mike MacIntyre at San Jose State or Sonny Dykes at Louisiana Tech — if they were interested — might have been better fits.
But there’s nothing wrong with rolling the dice on an assistant. Georgia has enjoyed a lot of success under Mark Richt who joined the Bulldogs after serving as Florida State’s offensive coordinator. Will Muschamp led Florida to an 11-1 season this year in just his second season as a head coach. And we all know about the job James Franklin has done at Vanderbilt, despite the fact that he landed in Nashville to a chorus of “who’s he?”
For Kentucky to move forward as a program, Stoops will need plenty of real support from the UK administration. When John Calipari wants a new locker room for his hoops team, he gets it. When a Rich Brooks or Joker Phillips has asked for a new recruiting room for the football program, they’ve been stone-walled. That will need to end.
Vanderbilt — and that’s a good comparison for Kentucky at the moment — has invested in its program and in Franklin. If Kentucky truly gets behind Stoops, the Cats can improve. If the administration just gives lip service and fails to support its football program with dollars and cents, it wouldn’t matter if the Stoops being hired were Bob rather than Mark.
In addition to getting true backing from UK’s athletic department, administration and boosters, Stoops will need to begin to recruit three states more effectively — Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Ohio should be the first target. The University of Cincinnati has produced 40 NFL draft picks over the past 25 years. The Wildcats have produced 48 (which is the same number produced by Louisville, by the way). That has to change. UK might have a tougher climb to the top of its own conference than UC or U of L, but it should still provide an easier pathway to the NFL for Bluegrass and Buckeye State prospects. Stoops will have to sell that message again and again.
So is Stoops the right man for the job? There’s no telling. Think back to the yawns that rose up before Franklin ever held his first presser at Vandy. But that one’s worked out well. Dan Mullen has been an overall success at Mississippi State, too (assuming the NCAA hasn’t found evidence of hanky-panky in Starkville).
Mullen came to State from Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida. Since arriving he’s energized the fanbase to the point of stadium expansion, he’s led the Bulldogs to three bowl games in four years, and he’s won more than his share of games against his school’s greatest nemesis. If Stoops can do for Kentucky what Mullen has done for Mississippi State — a comparable program — then Wildcat AD Mitch Barnhart figures to be happy a man in a few short years.
We would have gone with someone who’s been a head coach previously, but Franklin and Mullen and Muschamp and Richt have shown that promoted coordinators can do the job and do it well. Just so long as the school picks the right coordinator to promote.
Whether that’s Stoops or not? We’ll start to learn more about that in about nine months.