John Clay: Barnhart did his homework, found right fit for UK

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 27, 2012 

If it was a 3-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, then Mitch Barnhart has hit a long drive that's headed straight for the seats.

Time will tell if it's a round-tripper, but from this vantage point it sure looks like Barnhart has hit a home run.

The UK athletics director announced Tuesday that he hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to replace Joker Phillips as the school's football coach, coaxing the 45-year-old Ohio native to take over a program that went 2-10 this past season.

No, it's not Bobby Petrino. That was never going to happen, nor should it have happened. Bill Cowher? Be serious. Mike MacIntyre? The San Jose State coach has done a great job, but with California-based players. Butch Jones? The head Bearcat is a solid coach at Cincinnati, but has no real Southern connections.

It says here that if you were to make a checklist of what a school like Kentucky, without a noted history of gridiron success, needs then Stoops checks all the right boxes.

Name recognition: The name Stoops is nearly synonymous with college football coaching. Brother Bob is the head coach at Oklahoma, where he won a national championship. Brother Mike was the head coach at Arizona and is now the defensive coordinator for brother Bob in Norman. Stoops' father was a legendary high school coach in Ohio. It's in the genes.

Coach on the rise: Mark Stoops built a good defense under his brother at Arizona, but has come into his own away from the family tree in Tallahassee.

Before his arrival, FSU ranked 108th nationally in total defense. With Stoops as defensive coordinator, it jumped to 42nd in 2010, to fourth last year and second this year.

Before a 37-26 loss to Florida last Saturday, the Seminoles spent most of the year atop the statistical rankings, giving further ammunition to those — ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit chief among them — who wondered why Stoops hadn't already been hired as a head coach.

Recruiting ties: Known as a relentless recruiter, Stoops has ties in Ohio (where he was born), on the West Coast (from his days at Arizona with his brother, Mike), to Florida, especially South Florida (where he was an assistant at Miami from 2001-03, through his past three years at FSU).

If you're going to win at Kentucky, you have to be able to recruit.

The desire: Stoops has made no secret of his desire to be a head coach and, I've been told, pulled ahead of the other UK candidates thanks to his attention to detail, his knowledge of the situation and his plan for recruiting and renovating the program.

Rally the base: At one time, Kentucky was known as a school that possessed a hard-core fan base that would support even losing football. That's no longer the case. This year proved it.

Attendance tanked, hitting rock-bottom with the 18,885 who bothered to come through the turnstiles at Commonwealth Stadium for the Vanderbilt game.

Somehow, someway Barnhart had to find a way to get the faithful back in the seats. This may be a basketball state, but in today's world of college athletics, football pays the freight.

Stoops should serve as a desirable draw. He has been described as possessing a fiery but likable personality that should connect with the fan base, in this case a fan base tired of losing and one that merely wants some hope for the future.

It's early, of course. To apply a baseball metaphor to football, the ball has just left the bat. Stoops has never been a head football coach. As we know, Kentucky is a tough job. As we also know, the SEC is the toughest football conference in the nation. This fly ball could die on the warning track.

My guess is it will clear the wall, however. For all the criticism Barnhart has endured this long football season — my beef was his silence after firing Phillips — he has done his homework, enlisted the aid of former UK star quarterback Tim Couch, and pulled off what the program needs right here, right now.

That's a coach who can be a home run hire.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. |Blog: johnclay.bloginky.co

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