UK Football

Stoops says rebuilding Kentucky football starts with building relationships

UK football coach Mark Stoops talked to the media before Kentucky played Texas A&M on Saturday January 12, 2013 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
UK football coach Mark Stoops talked to the media before Kentucky played Texas A&M on Saturday January 12, 2013 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

With a Kentucky native as his tour guide, Mark Stoops might learn if Bluegrass is really blue or why bourbon can only officially come from the commonwealth.

But the new UK coach isn't embarking on the Bourbon Trail, he's on the getting-to-know-you trail, trying to connect with as many of the state's high school coaches as possible.

"We'll be getting out into Kentucky, just shaking hands and trying to meet people," Stoops told the Herald-Leader in an exclusive interview on Thursday in his new office.

Stoops' guide is a familiar face to many of the state's coaches: UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown, a Danville native who talked a few weeks ago about the importance of selling the prospect of "come be a hero" to in-state recruits.

The two coaches could be coming to visit a high school near you soon, but Stoops noted that rules keep them from visiting schools of current Cats prospects.

"So some of the schools, I may not be into, some of the top schools and whatnot," Stoops said.

Rules and timelines limit his chances to visit with all of the state's coaches, but he's trying to take advantage of the time he has. "We'll get into as many as we can while still getting into commits' homes, or guys we're trying to get committed."

And how has that part gone, Stoops was asked.

Has it been more difficult to recruit top talent to Kentucky than he initially expected?

"I've been pleasantly surprised," he said. "I'm optimistic about the future because I really believe that we can recruit at a high level here. I really do."

UK has gotten in on a few four-star level players, including junior-college signee Za'Darius Smith, one of eight commitments since Stoops arrived.

In former coach Joker Phillips' three recruiting classes as head coach, UK had three four-star recruits in Patrick Towles (2012), Glenn Faulkner (2011) and Alex Smith (2010). Smith was dismissed from the team having never played a game.

Stoops has brought in several consensus three-star players and is reportedly in contention for several committed four-stars such as Marcus McWilson (Nebraska), Jason Hatcher (Southern Cal), Marquez White (Florida State) and Ra'Shaad Samples (Oklahoma State).

What gives the coach confidence that he can recruit at a high level at Kentucky, both now and in the future?

"Recruiting's about relationships," he said. "A lot of colleges have the bells and whistles and everything, but it's really about who you are and what you are and what your program's all about and the type of people you have involved in your program."

"It's not so much about the buildings, it's about the people in the buildings."

And it helps that those people include top-tier coordinators that have had big success at their previous stops, like Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot being a part of Florida State's Atlantic Coast Conference championship and sending top players to the NFL. They oversaw the nation's second-best defense this past season.

At Texas Tech, Brown piloted the nation's second-best passing offense and its 13th-best offense overall.

The UK head coach said there is a desire for this staff to strike while their irons are hot. Then he smiled wryly, asking if there was some skepticism that maybe being at Kentucky would cool those hypothetical irons.

"It's fair to say you're trying to piggyback on the momentum of what you're doing," Stoops said. "If you look at the track record of where I've been and where our coaches have been, (recruits) have to believe. They have to put their faith and confidence in somebody. We're asking them to put it in us and this program."

Reception has been good so far, especially for a staff that got started late. Stoops felt good about his visits with the 16 players on campus last weekend.

And the coach said he feels good when he settles into his place on the couches of recruits and their families.

Stoops said he tries to sell himself, his vision for UK's future and his vision for the future of that player.

"The players want to know if they can relate to you, if they can play for you, if they want to be around you, if they want to listen to you lead them," Stoops continued.

"I talk about recruiting, developing our players, developing them as whole people. I talk about dependability and accountability because if you're dependable and accountable, then you'll get things done."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader