UK Football

Stoops once spurned Saban as a recruit and other fun storylines for UK’s trip to Alabama

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops congratulated Alabama head coach Nick Saban after a 48-7 Alabama win at Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 12, 2013.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops congratulated Alabama head coach Nick Saban after a 48-7 Alabama win at Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 12, 2013. palcala@herald-leader.com

There will be lots of storylines going into Kentucky’s game at top-ranked Alabama.

Like how the Cats have fared against No. 1 teams. Or the recruiting wars over in-state players such as Madison Southern’s Damien Harris, who ultimately ended up with the Crimson Tide, and defensive tackle Matt Elam, who stayed home.

Or maybe the departure of Kentucky secondary coach Derrick Ansley, who left for the same position at Alabama.

All of those are interesting, but UK Coach Mark Stoops had a few more personal stories to kick off game week in a humorous way.

Like the bar story in which his uncle Bob Stoops and Nick Saban were present during an armed robbery (see below).

Or the story of how Saban once recruited Mark Stoops to play for him at Michigan State.

“I was not a very good player, first of all,” Mark Stoops said Monday. “But I got recruited by Iowa — my visits were Iowa and Ohio State. My two brothers were at Iowa, so I visited Iowa. I visited Ohio State. And I knew if I didn’t go to Ohio State, I was going to go to Iowa because of the relationships I had with all of those coaches and I wasn’t going to go anywhere else.”

So he canceled his visit to Michigan State, where Saban was a position coach recruiting Ohio at the time.

“That phone call didn’t go very well,” Stoops said. “And I was really young and naïve and had no clue. I knew I wasn’t a great player or anything like that, but I couldn’t believe — he made it very difficult for me, and I remember getting off the phone and saying, ‘Wow.’ He was very persuasive and very good.”

Saban seemed to dispute Stoops’ assessment of his skills.

“Mark was a really good player,” Saban said. “You know, we really tried to get him but we didn’t. Hayden Fry had that family pretty wrapped up.”

Stoops was asked later if he’s ever talked to Saban about recruiting him in high school. Stoops laughed.

“No, no we really haven’t,” UK’s coach said.

“We haven’t talked about that experience. I’m sure he’s recruited a few more talented football players since then.”

The few times he’s been able to talk to Saban since then, Stoops said he’s enjoyed getting to know the coach, whom he called “arguably the best coach of all time in college football.”

A bar story for the ages

You know the joke that always starts with “three guys walk into a bar?”

Well, Alabama Coach Nick Saban has quite the variation on that story and it famously involves one of the uncles of Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops.

The uncle, named Bob Stoops like Mark’s older brother at Oklahoma, was sitting at a bar in Youngstown called The Talk of the Town talking football with then-Michigan State defensive coordinator Saban.

“We’re talking about football; we’re arguing about stuff,” Saban recalled on an ESPN “Inside the Program” feature in 2015. “And somebody came in with a shotgun and held the bartender up and left. We didn’t know what happened.”

Apparently the two coaches had been so engrossed in football talk they totally missed the robbery.

“I always thought my uncle was full of it,” Mark Stoops said of the story, which he relayed to the UK media on Monday. “You know, he’s a little crazy. I said, ‘You’re exaggerating this story.’ But I heard Coach Saban say it on one of his shows that he was on.

“He verified it, so that was like, ‘Wow, Bob, you were telling the truth.’ You never know what you’re going to get in Youngstown.”

Stoops, Harris still friendly

As for Damien Harris, the Madison Southern running back who opted to go to Alabama instead of Kentucky, Stoops said he’s still in regular contact with the Alabama standout.

When Stoops was asked about how close he thought UK was to landing Harris, the head coach said: “I thought we were very close. … He and I had some conversations, and I’ll keep that between he and I.

“It was good. I caught up with Damien recently, in the summer. Had lunch with Damien, and I’ll keep that between he and I.”

UK will have its hands full against Harris, who is listed as day-to-day after suffering an ankle injury Saturday. For the season, Harris is averaging 8.6 yards a carry, with 40 carries for 345 yards and one touchdown.

“Damien looks very good,” Stoops said. “Just like we knew recruiting him and watching him play here in Kentucky. He’s just like you would expect. He’s a very talented guy. He looks very explosive — the great vision and the great jump cuts you see out of him. That’s what you see on film.”

Other news and notes

▪  Kentucky’s game against Vanderbilt on Oct. 8 will be played at 4 p.m. on the SEC Network, the league announced Monday.

▪  There were few changes to the depth chart released by UK on Monday, with the exception of formally moving the quarterbacks into place with Drew Barker out for several weeks (back injury). So as has been reported, the depth chart now has Stephen Johnson at No. 1 followed by true freshman Gunnar Hoak and then Cincinnati transfer Luke Wright.

▪  The only other depth chart change was Benny Snell being moved to the lead kickoff returner spot. All season, it’s been between Snell, Sihiem King and Jeff Badet. Special teams coach Matt House said on Wednesday that all season they’ve worked those three during practice and the player who performs best gets the nod.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Next game

Kentucky at Alabama

7 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)

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