Mark Story: For Stoops, more at stake vs. WKU than 'normal' coaching debut

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 26, 2013 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

My first-hand memory of Kentucky football coaches starts with Fran Curci's debut season in 1973. In all that time, no new Wildcats head man has generated the positive buzz before coaching his first game that Mark Stoops has produced.

Since UK hired the former Florida State defensive coordinator, it's been a genuinely impressive nine months.

Stoops successfully wooed Neal Brown to bring an Air Raid offense back to Kentucky. The new UK coach won recruiting battles with Florida and Southern Cal, respectively, for prized in-state recruits Ryan Timmons and Jason Hatcher.

Caught up in the Stoops wave, a throng of 50,000-plus fans turned out to see UK's spring game. The new Kentucky head man has launched an "Ohio invasion" — nine commitments from the Buckeye State already for 2014 — that has helped propel Kentucky's recruiting class to No. 7 in the country (Rivals.com).

After such a rollicking start, for the first game of the Stoops era to be a defeat to Western Kentucky would, at least in the short term, let some air out of the balloon.

To his credit, Stoops has not backed down from the significance of UK winning its season opener with WKU.

"I think it is important. I have not shied away from that question, I think (the WKU game) is very important," Stoops said Monday at his first weekly news conference. "There's a lot of excitement around our program and around our state, and nationally, really. It's time for us to go out and prove it."

Why is there so much at stake for Stoops at Nashville on Saturday night?

Whatever happens with the overall UK win/loss record in 2013, the most important thing Kentucky football can achieve is to get to the end of this season with UK's 2014 recruiting momentum — and commitments — intact.

An opening loss to a Sun Belt Conference team, even one that beat UK a season ago, could make selling "a new day at Kentucky" get difficult real fast.

Then there is the Bobby Petrino factor. After UK pulled the plug on the Joker Phillips coaching regime with two games to go last season, there was a loud faction of the Kentucky fan base that had eyes only for the fallen ex-Arkansas and Louisville head man.

Once Stoops came on board to good reviews, and especially after Kentucky had so much early recruiting success, the Wildcats fan base seemed to unify. But if Petrino beats the Wildcats in a season opener for the fifth time in his career by registering a victory Saturday night, that could — it shouldn't, but it could — bring on a Big Blue wave of second-guessing.

Wildcats running back Raymond Sanders said proving that Kentucky was right to pick Stoops and not Petrino is not something the Wildcats are talking about.

"We definitely don't think about that at all," Sanders said. "We feel like that we got the best (coach). That's how (Western) feels. Well, we feel the same way."

It is also true that the presence of Petrino, perhaps the most gifted offensive tactician in college football, is an opportunity for Stoops. A UK victory over WKU with the Hilltoppers led by a head coach who has taken teams to the Orange Bowl (Louisville) and the Sugar Bowl (Arkansas) would be more significant than a "normal" win over Western.

Starting with Bear Bryant in 1946, UK head football coaches are 5-5-1 in their debut games.

Historically, whether a head man wins his first game or loses it has not been much of an indicator of future success at Kentucky.

Bill Curry and Phillips both won their initial contests, yet both were ultimately fired amidst much fan unrest. Jerry Claiborne and Rich Brooks both lost their first contests, yet they went on to earn enough victories and respect that they left UK on their own terms.

In recent memory, the Kentucky coaching debut that had the highest stakes was Hal Mumme's in 1997. Plucked from obscurity at NCAA Division II Valdosta State, Mumme and his pass-happy offense needed to establish immediate credibility at Kentucky. Putting 21 points on the scoreboard in the first quarter of the first game on the way to a 38-24 win over Louisville did that nicely.

Because Stoops has gotten off to such a good start off the field, there is more at stake for him Saturday night against Petrino and Western than there has been for any UK coach in a first game since that Mumme debut.

Asked Monday if he thought he would get any sleep during the week of his initial game as Kentucky head man, Stoops grinned.

"Hopefully, a little bit," he said.

How Kentucky head football coaches in the post-World War II era have fared in their first games:

Season Year Coach Opening foe Result record

1946 Bear Bryant Mississippi W, 20-7 7-3

1954 Blanton Collier Maryland L, 20-0 7-3

1962 Charlie Bradshaw Florida St. T, 0-0 3-5-2

1969 John Ray Indiana L, 58-30 2-8

1973 Fran Curci Virginia Tech W, 31-26 5-6

1982 Jerry Claiborne Kansas St. L, 23-9 0-10-1

1990 Bill Curry Central Michigan W, 20-17 4-7

1997 Hal Mumme Louisville W, 38-24 5-6

2001 Guy Morriss Louisville L, 36-10 2-9

2003 Rich Brooks Louisville L, 40-24 4-8

2010 Joker Phillips Louisville W, 23-16 6-7

2013 Mark Stoops Western Kentucky TBD TBD

Mark Story

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: Markstory.bloginky.com.

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