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John Clay: Stoops applies new blueprint to long history of UK reconstructions

Herald-Leader ColumnistAugust 24, 2014 

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Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops conducted practice Monday.

PHOTO BY CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Mark Stoops enters the second season of his rebuilding project at Kentucky, and when it comes to overhauls, this is hardly the school's first rodeo.

If the program owns one true tradition, it is the transition from one coach to another in the constant search for a consistent winner.

Let's look back at the second year of past rebuilds:

In 1970, John Ray was in his second season replacing Charlie Bradshaw. A former Bear Bryant assistant, Bradshaw had tried to emulate the Bear's toughness without success.

A former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Ray won recruits but not games. He went 2-8 his first season, 2-9 his second. After consecutive 3-8 years, Ray was out before he even coached a game at Commonwealth Stadium, which he had pushed the administration so hard to build.

In 1974, Fran Curci was in his second season succeeding Ray. Curci was a tanned, charismatic Floridian who pumped life into the program. After a promising 5-6 debut, Curci nearly bagged a bowl game in year two, losing to Tennessee in the finale to finish 6-5.

Two years later, Kentucky reached the Peach Bowl. A year after that, the Cats reached heights they have not seen since, going 10-1. Only probation kept the Cats out of a New Year's Day bowl.

Then it all fell apart. Arrests off the field and losses on the field ended Curci's tenure in 1981, although the head coach didn't go quietly.

Jerry Caliborne was everything Curci was not. Claiborne was principled, old-fashioned and without NCAA baggage. Integrity replaced charisma. Claiborne arrived with a broom.

After a tough 0-10-1 debut, the coach engineered a quick turnaround in 1983, his second season. UK went 6-5-1, losing the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham to West Virginia. It made amends the next season, going 9-3 with a Hall of Fame Bowl win over Wisconsin.

Alas, Claiborne couldn't capitalize. In his final five seasons, UK was never bad, but it was never good enough to reach a bowl. Six wins didn't mean an automatic postseason trip in those days.

After Claiborne retired in 1989, Kentucky thought it hit the jackpot with Bill Curry, who was everything you could want in a college coach: clean, upright, a terrific speaker who preached academics and integrity.

Wins never materialized, however. After a 4-7 debut season, Kentucky slipped to 3-8 in 1991. Curry did get the Cats to the Peach Bowl in 1993, but too many changes in philosophy and too little talent doomed his tenure.

So in 1997, the school took a chance on Hal Mumme, a Division II coach who knew only one way to play. Throw it. Where Curry all but refused to play super-recruit Tim Couch, Mumme made him his centerpiece.

UK fans were ecstatic when Mumme went 5-6 in his debut, but the second helping was even better. Couch guided the Cats to a 7-5 record and a New Year's Day game (Outback Bowl) for the first time since 1951.

Alas, Mumme fell as quickly as he ascended. Recruiting coordinator Claude Bassett got caught cheating. Mumme was sent packing. Probation arrived again.

Offensive line coach Guy Morriss was tapped as Mumme's successor and improved from 2-9 his debut season to 7-5 his second. Hired by Larry Ivy, Morriss was uncomfortable under Ivy's successor, Mitch Barnhart, and he jumped at a windfall offer from Baylor.

In came Rich Brooks, who had been out of the college game for nearly a decade but knew the game like few coaches. After a 4-8 start, UK slipped to 2-9 as scholarship limits took their toll.

Brooks toughed it out and took Kentucky to successive bowl games from 2006 through 2009. He never achieved the real breakthrough he coveted, but when he retired, he was the first UK coach to go on a bowl roll since Claiborne.

That streak quickly stopped. A designated "coach-in-waiting," Joker Phillips couldn't keep it going. After a 6-7 mark in 2010, UK dipped to a bowl-less 5-7 in 2011 and bottomed out in 2012.

In came Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator who plotted a different path. He drastically changed the conditioning program. He focused on recruiting Ohio. He hired Neal Brown to coordinate an updated Air Raid.

True, Stoops' 2-10 record in 2013 was the worst debut by a Kentucky coach since Claiborne's winless 1982 campaign, but there are worse coaches to be associated with in such things.

Maybe after all these years, this time UK got the rebuild right.

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

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