Mark Story: Off the field, Mark Stoops is an irresistible force

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 30, 2014 

UK Coach Mark Stoops and his staff have been on the hunt for a Matt Elam commitment.

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On the field, Mark Stoops' first season as Kentucky head football coach was a dispiriting, if familiar, slog. Off the field, Stoops is in the midst of as bountiful a stretch as any UK football head man has enjoyed in my memory.

In Elizabethtown on Thursday, mammoth John Hardin High School defensive tackle Matt Elam announced he would attend Kentucky.

Since Stoops came to Lexington, UK has now beaten Florida (Ryan Timmons), Southern California (Jason Hatcher), Steve Spurrier (Drew Barker) and Alabama (Elam) for in-state recruits.

That's pretty strong.

In a man-bites-dog sense, so great was the shock that Kentucky had beaten Alabama for Elam, a recruit that 247Sports rates as a five-star prospect and the No. 21 player in the country in the class of 2014, that Sports Illustrated — Sports Illustrated — even tweeted about it.

The recruiting data base at Rivals.com goes back to 2002. From that year through the 2012 recruiting season, Kentucky signed 14 players that Rivals rated as four-star recruits.

Since Stoops came to Lexington, Kentucky has signed or presently has verbal commitments from 13 such players.

With a familiar disclaimer from me that "recruiting stars" are not always that accurate a predictor of how a player turns out in college, that's pretty strong.

On Friday, the UK Board of Trustees is expected to vote on a plan for Kentucky to build a new $45 million football training facility that will apparently be entirely funded with private donations.

This at a school where many a recent coach has lamented the difficulty of getting boosters with big bucks to invest in football.

The fact that Stoops, not even 15 months on the job, has apparently played a role in attracting enough private financing that UK is in position to launch a substantial facilities upgrade is pretty strong.

Late last year, UK announced with much fanfare it was undertaking a two-year, $110 million project to modernize (and downsize) Commonwealth Stadium. That is after years of frustration (ladies and gentlemen, Rich Brooks) as Kentucky athletics officials searched, futilely, for a funding mechanism that would allow for a badly needed stadium upgrade.

The factors that finally allowed Kentucky to move forward on Commonwealth Stadium renovations — Mitch Barnhart cutting a deal with UK President Eli Capilouto for the athletics department to fund a new science building in return for the university proper allowing its bonding capacity to be used for the stadium project (with athletics paying off that debt, too) — were not directly linked to the arrival of Stoops.

Still, it seems likely the positive public reaction to the hiring of Stoops and the good feelings engendered by the coach's perceived early recruiting success did help grease the wheels for the stadium project to gain approval.

For a coach with a 2-10 career record to preside over a program that is experiencing unprecedented recruiting success, an influx of private funding and a major stadium renovation is pretty strong.

Of course, in the impatient world of modern major college sports, on-the-field success cannot lag behind for too long for any coach.

Even if Kentucky's 2013 and '14 recruiting classes eventually play up to their hype, depending on true freshmen and sophomores as the nucleus to your team is rarely the path to immediate success in the Southeastern Conference.

The 2015 season, when "the new Commonwealth Stadium" is supposed to be ready and Kentucky will have eight home games, would seem to be the point at which Stoops will face legitimate expectations of putting UK into a bowl game.

In 2014 Kentucky needs to show substantial on-the-field improvement. It would be better if that improvement is reflected in the win-loss record, of course. Either way, by the time next season ends it needs to be apparent that the UK football team is headed in the right direction.

Finding a quarterback would be a boon, too.

Since Mark Stoops became Kentucky head man, he has been winning far more than his share of off-the-field battles. Fans of a program that is 7-27 in its last 34 contests will hope the UK coach soon proves just as adept at winning some games.

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

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