Bill Curry couldn’t do it. Hal Mumme couldn’t do it. Guy Morriss couldn’t do it. Rich Brooks couldn’t do it. Joker Phillips couldn’t do it.
So how did Mark Stoops do it?
That’s a relevant question three days before Stoops’ Kentucky Wildcats play Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday at Kroger Field for the right to represent the SEC East in the league championship game Dec. 1 in Atlanta.
How has the current Kentucky head football coach succeeded where previous UK coaches had failed since the SEC first expanded in 1992 and put the Wildcats in position for a chance to play for the league title?
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No other UK coach has come close. In fact, since Fran Curci’s 1977 team went 6-0 in conference play, no other Kentucky coach had produced a winning SEC record until that dramatic 15-14 victory at Missouri last Saturday clinched the Cats’ fifth league win with two games to play.
To understand how Stoops got Kentucky to this point, however, you have to focus on something he said Monday when talking about star outside linebacker Josh Allen.
“This is a developmental sport,” said the coach.
It’s an echo of what the former Florida State defensive coordinator said when he first took the Kentucky job six years ago. Job one, he said, was to recruit good players. Job two, he added, was to develop those players.
To accomplish the first goal, Stoops made a smart hire, luring his friend Vince Marrow away from another friend, Bo Pelini, at Nebraska to become UK’s recruiting coordinator. And Marrow executed a Kentucky recruiting strategy often suggested but rarely practiced: Recruit Ohio.
Look at the current roster. Star running back Benny Snell is from Westerville, Ohio. Lynn Bowden, whose 67-yard punt return for a touchdown helped turn the Missouri game around, is from Stoops’ hometown of Youngstown. So is Jordan Jones. Darius West is from Lima. Mike Edwards is from Cincinnati. A.J. Rose is from Cleveland. Dorian Baker is from Cleveland Heights. C.J. Conrad is from LaGrange. Phil Hoskins is from Toledo. All are major contributors to a 7-1 team ranked 11th in the nation.
Recruiting talent is one thing. Developing talent is another. And in a program without tradition, that relies on finding prospects others miss or reject. That doesn’t happen overnight. Case in point is a UK defense that has jumped from 92nd in yards allowed last year to 10th this season.
Mark Stoops knows how to coach defense. He proved that at Arizona and then Florida State. It takes more than schemes, however. It takes coaching, talent, desire, pride and experience for a defense to mesh into the unit that held Missouri, with an NFL-ready quarterback, without a first down in the second half Saturday.
He has made good hires, too. Eddie Gran would not win a fan popularity contest right now, but the offensive coordinator has provided the physical play/strong running game Stoops wants. On the other side of the ball, coordinator Matt House is the unsung hero of the defense’s success.
Facilities help. Yes, Kentucky’s recruiting has benefited from the recent stadium renovation and the nearly-new Joe Craft Football Training Facility. But Stoops played a major role there, too, lobbying and fund-raising to get the upgrades his predecessors wanted but could never got.
You can argue Stoops has caught other breaks, as well. Yes, Florida is not the Florida of old. Tennessee remains down. Steve Spurrier isn’t walking through that door at South Carolina. After back-to-back SEC title game trips, Missouri has returned to mediocrity.
Thing is, some of those doors have opened before. Yet Kentucky teams were never quite able to walk through them and find themselves in the position this one finds itself in now, a win away from playing for the championship of the nation’s toughest college football conference.
That’s a spot many longtime Kentucky football fans never thought they would see in their lifetime. So no matter what happens Saturday against Georgia, they have Mark Stoops to thank.