Like Stoops, Brooks was a coach with a defensive background who took over the UK program when it was in a tough spot.
Stoops inherited the Kentucky position coming off a 2-10 season in 2012. Brooks took over a winning UK team (7-5 in 2002), but got the Kentucky program just as severe scholarship restrictions from an NCAA probation began to bite.
Through three years (2013-15), Stoops has not won much, 12-24 (4-20 SEC).
Through three years (2003-05), Brooks won even less, 9-25 (4-20 SEC).
In his fourth year, even Brooks thought he was done after LSU pounded Kentucky 49-0 in the seventh game of 2006, leaving the Cats 3-4 and their coach 12-29 overall.
Instead, Brooks’ team jelled and won five of its final six games including a victory over Clemson in the Music City Bowl.
The 2006 Cats turned their season thanks to a veteran offense, led by a home-state quarterback in Andre Woodson (North Hardin), that carried a shaky defense to success.
On paper, the most viable path to bowl-eligibility for Stoops’ 2016 Cats looks to be for a veteran offense, led by a home-state quarterback in Drew Barker (Conner), to carry what projects to be a shaky defense to success.
It’s not a perfect analogy because Woodson was a fourth-year junior in 2006 who already had a full-year of starting experience; Barker is a third-year sophomore in 2016 who has started only two prior games.
Still, there are enough similarities between Kentucky in 2016, and Kentucky in 2006, to gin up some viable hope.
However, if you are a student of Kentucky Wildcats football history with a pessimistic bent, you look at Mark Stoops’ fourth season as UK head man and see echoes of John Ray’s fourth-year slog.
Stoops came to the UK head coaching position after a successful run as defensive coordinator at a football titan, Florida State.
Ray came to the UK head coaching position in 1969 after a successful run as defensive coordinator at a football titan, Notre Dame.
Because of his pedigree, Stoops created an excitement around UK football as reflected in the estimated 50,831 who turned out for the coach’s first spring game in 2013.
Because of his pedigree, Ray created an excitement around UK football as reflected in a Sports Illustrated writer turning out to cover the coach’s first game, against Indiana, in 1969. Even Adolph Rupp told SI he was more excited about Kentucky football than he had been in years.
Taking advantage of the energy Stoops brought, UK substantially enhanced its facilities, unveiling a $126 million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium in 2015 and a $45 million training facility in 2016.
Taking advantage of the energy Ray brought, UK substantially enhanced its facilities, committing some $12 million to build a brand new football stadium.
Through three years (2013-15), Stoops has not won much: 12-24 (4-20 SEC).
Through three years (1969-71), Ray won even less: 7-25 (2-19 SEC).
In Ray’s fourth year, the Cats stood 2-2 after Kentucky beat Mississippi State 17-13. Behind a stout defense, UK still seemed to have a shot to fulfill Ray’s rosy vision for Wildcats football. In four of its next five games, the Cats ‘D’ held foes such as LSU (10 points) and Georgia (13) to fewer than two touchdowns.
Yet because Ray’s teams never developed an offensive identity, UK lost all those contests but one, a 14-13 victory over Vanderbilt.
Instead of turning the corner, Ray finished his fourth season 3-8 (2-5 SEC). Ray got pink slipped by UK without ever getting the chance to coach in the new Commonwealth Stadium (opened in 1973) he had done so much to get built.
It’s not a perfect analogy because the 2016 Cats expect the offense, not the defense, to give the team its identity. Stoops has a contract buyout (some $12 million after the 2016 season) which makes it highly improbable his fourth season — unlike Ray’s — will be his last at UK regardless of the won/loss record.
Still, there are enough similarities between Kentucky in 2016, and Kentucky in 1972, to gin up some viable worry.
In 2016, UK football backers of all psychological bents will hope to party like it’s 2006, not suffer like it’s 1972.