Has Mark Stoops peaked as Kentucky’s football coach?
I’m not trying to be negative. Really, I’m not.
In fact, for my money, if ever there was a UK football coach in position for sustained success, it’s the 52-year-old Stoops, who in three weeks begins his seventh season with the Wildcats. To do it, however, he’ll have to defy history. That book is full of Kentucky coaches who had appeared to have turned the proverbial corner only to crash into a brick wall.
The charismatic Fran Curci coached Kentucky to that glorious 10-1 season in 1977. The Cats won all six of their SEC games and wound up No. 6 in the final AP poll. Only an NCAA-imposed postseason ban kept them out of a New Year’s Day bowl game. The glow didn’t last, however. Curci was just 15-28-1 over his next four years and was fired in 1981.
Three years later, Jerry Claiborne guided UK to a 9-3 record and a Hall of Fame Bowl win over Wisconsin. After that, however, Kentucky went 26-28-1 over the next five seasons. Claiborne retired in 1989.
Enter Bill Curry, whose best season was 1993 when UK finished 6-6 after a Peach Bowl loss to Clemson. Things were looking up. The next season brought a total collapse, however. The Cats defeated Louisville in the season opener, then dropped the next 10. By 1996, Curry had been fired. His UK record was 26-52.
Two years after taking Kentucky to the Outback Bowl, Hal Mumme was fired in the midst of an NCAA investigation that followed a 2-9 season. Rich Brooks’ 2007 team reached No. 8 in the AP poll after knocking off top-ranked LSU. UK went 14-12 the next two seasons and a frustrated Brooks retired after the 2009 campaign.
All those coaches had momentum. The fiery Curci brought much needed excitement to Kentucky football. Claiborne was a steady rock of integrity for a program that had spiraled out of control. Curry was a marquee name hired away from Alabama, of all places. Mumme brought the Air Raid offense, which set UK apart from other schools. For my money, Brooks was the best all-around coach of them all, one who put a probation-ridden program on solid ground.
All failed to keep it going, however. Some came closer than others. After his nine-win season, Claiborne never had a season in which he won fewer than five games. In today’s world of 12-game seasons, his record could have included a half-dozen bowl appearances. Even without Tim Couch, Mumme’s 1999 team reached the Music City Bowl. Arrogance and an NCAA investigation were his undoing. Brooks’ final two teams were competitive, but they could never quite clear the bar.
So why can Stoops’ tenure be different?
First, facilities. As discussed previously, they are ridiculous and necessary. To compete in the SEC, it’s either keep up or get out. And with the renovation of Commonwealth Stadium/Kroger Field and the addition of the Joe Craft Football Training Facility, UK’s football facilities are better than they have ever been.
Second, recruiting. Controlling the state is essential, but it’s hardly the answer. Kentucky’s population can’t produce the necessary numbers. For years, fans urged the Cats to hit Ohio harder. Enter Stoops, a Youngstown native. Enter recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow with his multitude of contacts. Result: Three of the five Wildcats selected in this year’s NFL Draft played their high school football in the Buckeye state.
Third, development. You’re not going to sign top-ranked classes at Kentucky. You’re just not. You need research and development. Josh Allen, the NFL Draft’s No. 7 overall selection, was a two-star recruit. Career rushing leader Benny Snell was a three-star. That speaks to Stoops and staff’s developmental abilities.
There are no guarantees, of course. Long-term success is a tough nut to crack; the SEC unforgiving. Given UK’s personnel losses from last year’s 10-3 squad, a win total dip is probably unavoidable. The 2019 edition is a young team that should improve. I don’t see a brick wall. I see a coach who just might defy history.