John Clay: Mark Stoops' contract extension a show of faith, not a leap

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 6, 2014 

For all those bowl berths, SEC titles and historic wins — well, not yet — Kentucky announced Tuesday it has awarded head football coach Mark Stoops with a contract extension.

Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart has given Stoops a one-year add-on to his original five-year deal. Back in the old days, they called it a rollover, and in this case Barnhart did toss his second-year head coach a bit of a salary bump, as well.

It's the success on the field that's supposed to follow. The extended deal is more an article of faith in the former Florida State defensive coordinator who has provided the program a significant boost of enthusiasm.

Now, we could take this opportunity to discuss how athletic departments, which claim not to possess the necessary money to pay their student-athletes beyond a scholarship, somehow have the dollars to raise the salary of a coach who won two games last season, but we'll save that topic for a later column.

Instead, this is a good time for a Stoops status report heading into his second summer on the job.

To date, recruiting is his top achievement, by far. Beating out MAC and FCS schools for college talent has given way to signings of three- and four-star prospects.

During Joker Phillips' final year as coach, Rivals ranked Kentucky's recruiting class 63rd in the nation. Stoops had limited time to sign his first class, yet it was ranked 29th by Rivals. His class of 2014 was No. 17.

Rivals ranks his current class of 2015 commitments at No. 24. Just last week, Stoops welcomed a commitment from an Ohio wide receiver named Alex Stump, who is rated a four-star prospect by 247Sports.

Bottom line: Talent wins games. On the one hand, even with the improvement, UK trails many of its competitors in the ridiculously strong SEC. On the other hand, Stoops has managed to break the recruiting glass ceiling that has stopped so many of his predecessors.

The same goes for facilities. Phillips and predecessor Rich Brooks both wanted stadium and facility upgrades, without much luck. With Stoops on board, UK has started a $110 million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium with construction on a new $45 million practice facility just around the corner.

What must Stoops do next season to keep enthusiasm high? That's easy: Win games. Potential is one thing; performance is everything.

UK doesn't have to win the six required for a bowl bid. That's an unrealistic goal considering it's his second year and the crushing nature of the conference. It's going to take more than a couple good recruiting years to supplement Stoops' schemes.

On offense, no matter whom offensive coordinator Neal Brown settles on, the starting quarterback will be inexperienced. On defense, Stoops is building, but it takes more than one Bud Dupree to make a significant impact.

Still, Stoops needs to (a) avoid blowouts and (b) at least reach a position where bowl eligibility is on the table.

If you're a Kentucky fan, much of this comes down to trusting your athletics director. As for football hires, not counting Stoops, Barnhart is 1-for-2.

His pick of the veteran Brooks to nurse a program through probation and back to relevancy turned out to be an inspired choice. His choice of Phillips as coach-in-waiting and Brooks' successor turned out to be off the mark.

The Stoops hire has been so far, so good. No doubt some are already tired of the marketing hype. And the rookie head coach is still learning the job. To this point, however, Stoops hasn't given you any reason to think he will fail.

These days, new coaches get less time to produce results — Barnhart punched Phillips' eject button after just three years.

The time added to Stoops' contract wasn't a leap of faith, it was more a show of faith that in time, he will get the victories.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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