John Clay: Stoops brings hope, possibilities to Kentucky's season opener and beyond

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 30, 2013 

On Monday, Mark Stoops said he wasn't sure if the week would pass fast or slow.

He'd never done this before, after all, not as a head coach, anyway. He knew all about Game Week, but nothing like this, not when you're the one making all the decisions and you're responsible for everything, and everyone is looking at you.

By Wednesday, when he met with the media after practice for his near-daily question-and-answer, and we press types paused a moment while trying to think if, after this long fall Kentucky football training camp, there was something left to ask, Stoops chuckled.

"I'm out, too," he said.

Finally, it's showtime.

When you think about it, Nashville is the perfect spot for this Kentucky-Western Kentucky college football opener, to be played under the lights at LP Field just off downtown.

They know all about shows in Music City, about planning and preparation and rehearsals and stagecraft and peaking when the lights come on.

They know a thing or two about comebacks — in this case, that would be Western Kentucky Coach Bobby Petrino — and they know a thing or two about new acts.

Stoops is the new act. He's coached before, of course, at Miami and Arizona and under Jimbo Fisher down at Florida State, where, as a defensive coordinator, Stoops caught the attention of Mitch Barnhart and the Kentucky athletics director made the backup a headliner.

His brother Bob has won a national title at Oklahoma, his brother Mike took Arizona to bowl games, and now here it is the little brother's turn, and sometime Saturday night will that all sink in?

"I think maybe briefly or at the beginning," Stoops said Monday. "Certainly, I mean, I'm human, and it will be exciting for me. It is to this point. It will mean something to me. But then it's getting right back at the task at hand and getting your team ready to win."

They do keep score in these things. And Kentucky hasn't done a lot of winning the past couple of years, especially last year when Joker Phillips' team walked off the field just twice with smiles on their faces.

Thus, a change was made and in with the new.

We like new because new is bright and shiny and full of possibilities. Stoops has a new offensive coordinator in Neal Brown with a new scheme in the Air Raid. He has a new defensive coordinator in D.J. Eliot and a new scheme with a 4-3 base set, but with the promise to be multiple whenever needed.

But, for Kentucky, here's what "new" is really all about:

"We needed new hope," Barnhart said back in December just a couple of weeks after he had given Stoops the job. "You go from believing you're going to win to hoping you're going to win to no hope.

"We've got to reverse that and go from no hope to having hope again to believing you're going to win. I think our fans have hope again."

They have the audacity to hope, all right, as proven by the 50,000-plus that attended the spring game, as proven by the way the page view numbers rise every time Stoops tweets "Yahtzee" as a new commitment for 2014 climbs aboard the train, as proven by all the interest in this opening game pitting the veteran (Petrino) against the rookie (Stoops).

Given his nature, the rookie is probably a little anxious.

You could tell the new coach was a little nervous at the announcement of his hire, staged there before a crowd inside Nutter Field House.

He admitted he was a little nervous down in Hoover, Ala., last month when he met the print and electronic masses at SEC Football Media Days. It was an endearing quality, one that made him real.

And the guess here is that when Mark Stoops gets ready to take center stage Saturday night, there will be some butterflies.

That's a good thing.

And then, as they will tell you down in Music City, the nerves wear off and you just get down to playing — in this case, football.

It's showtime.

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

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