John Clay: Stoops' arrival a chance for UK to show commitment to football

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 2, 2012 

There was a band, playing On, On, U of K. There were seats and food and special guests and blasting music and video monitors and dignitaries, all at the Nutter Field House to celebrate the arrival of the new football coach.

That's right, the football coach.

"This just blows me away," said Freddie Maggard, the former Kentucky quarterback, his eyes wide marveling at the crowd of what turned out be somewhere in excess of 700. "I'm amazed."

And when 45-year-old Mark Stoops walked into the indoor facility, there were cheers. When he said, "I cannot tell you how excited I am to be your football coach," there were cheers. When he said, "I'm not really interested in what happened here before," there were cheers.

It wasn't just Kentucky's new football coach that had to win the press conference on Sunday — Mark Stoops did, by the way — it was the athletic program that had to win the press conference, the football press conference.

Like it or not, fair or unfair, that's what happens when a BCS program in the toughest conference in America sees its loss total balloon to double digits and its game attendance plummet below 20,000.

That's when fans begin questioning commitment and whether a university wants a winning football program. That's especially true at a school that hasn't had a winning conference record in more than 30 years, a school in which the legendary success of one major sport (basketball) has often overshadowed the other (football).

"We're extremely excited today to have a chance to begin fresh and have new beginnings," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said when introducing Stoops.

Barnhart hired a coach who is committed to football. The coach's name is football. He's a Stoops, son of a longtime high school football coach, brother to three college coaches, one of whom (Bob Stoops at Oklahoma) has won a national championship.

Mark Stoops is a coach committed to defense. He said he would hire a coordinator — Neal Brown anyone? — to run an offense the fans would enjoy, but Stoops is a defensive guy through and through. He said Sunday that his defense will "be clearly defined" and that to win consistently in any league "you have to play great defense."

Kentucky hasn't played dominating defense since the likes of Art Still, Jim Kovach and Mike Siganos were here. That was 1977. Not coincidentally, that was the last time UK posted a winning record in the SEC.

I asked Barnhart if during the search process, the thought of hiring a good defensive coach was in the back of his mind.

"It wasn't in the back of my mind," said the athletics director. "It was in the forefront of my mind."

Stoops fills the bill. At Florida State, he built a unit that was ranked first in the nation for much of the 2012 season before ending up No. 2 behind defending national champion Alabama.

"Just his reputation as a defensive coordinator, I think that's something we need here at Kentucky," said Tim Couch, the former UK All-America quarterback who helped Barnhart in the search process.

"You can always go out, like Mark said in the press conference, and hire a top-notch offensive coordinator to score some points and put some excitement back into the program. But with his defensive background and his defensive mind, I think that's what really sold me on him."

The real story is what happens when the music stops playing. While defending his record with regard to improving football, Barnhart said he knows more needs to be done, especially with Commonwealth Stadium and other facilities.

"We have everything we need to be successful here," said Stoops. "Sure, we want to improve on a few things here and there, but we have what it takes right now to be successful. It's our job to coach them, to put them in the right position, to recruit, to develop this program and turn them into a consistent winner."

Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C., there was another type of celebration. After Stoops and his Seminoles defeated Georgia Tech 21-15 to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, before the Florida State players had even given head coach Jimbo Fisher the traditional end-game bath, the defensive players dumped Gatorade on their departing defensive coordinator.

In the end, that's the celebration everyone wants.

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

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service