John Clay

Mark Stoops poised to make historic move up UK coaching chart

Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: ‘We’re not here to take steps backwards’

Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media during Media Day on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Coming off a 10-3 year, UK opens the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against the Toledo Rockets.
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Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media during Media Day on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Coming off a 10-3 year, UK opens the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against the Toledo Rockets.

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Even casual fans know Kentucky football does not own a glorious history. Not-so-fun fact: The last coach to depart UK with a winning record was Millersburg native Blanton Collier, who went 41-36-3 from 1954 through 1961. That’s six decades ago.

Of Collier’s successors, only two have come close to the .500 mark. Fran Curci fashioned a .480 winning percentage (47-51-2) from 1973 through 1981. His successor Jerry Claiborne produced a .472 mark (41-46-3) from 1982 through 1989.

Now we have Mark Stoops, the reigning SEC Coach of the Year who enters 2019 with a 36-39 record over his six seasons. That’s a winning percentage of .480, which ranks him tied for third among UK coaches since 1950, behind the legendary Bear Bryant (.710) and Collier.

And here’s the thing: If Kentucky could go 8-4 this regular season, Stoops would be just above that magical .500 mark at 44-43 through 87 games.

I’m on record as saying 8-4 is not just possible, it’s my season prediction. The significant personnel losses from last year’s 10-3 breakthrough can be softened by a manageable schedule — eight homes games and trade of a road game at Texas A&M (2018) for a visit from Arkansas (2019) — and a roster solidified by commendable recruiting during Stoops’ tenure.

It won’t be easy. This is Kentucky football, after all. History cannot be ignored. Losing Josh Allen, Benny Snell, Mike Edwards, Lonnie Johnson, Darius West, Derrick Baity, C.J. Conrad, George Asafo-Adjei and Bunchy Stallings, among others, is no small thing. For the Cats to weather that storm, several things have to happen.

Mark Stoops led Kentucky to a 10-3 record last season, which included a victory in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. He was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. Herald-Leader File Photo

Start with junior quarterback Terry Wilson. I may be in the minority here, but I think he can be really good. In his first year as a starter, and first in the program, the former junior-college transfer showed enough to make me believe he can make a Stephen Johnson-like jump from year one to year two.

Wilson should be helped by (a) an offensive line that returns eight members with game experience and (b) the presence of Lynn Bowden. Without Snell, UK’s all-time leading rusher, coordinator Eddie Gran’s offense should be a bit more diverse, with Bowden playing a starring role. The junior wide receiver is a difference-maker.

An 8-4 regular season for Kentucky in 2019 would push Mark Stoops’ career head coaching record above the .500 mark. Alex Slitz

Defense was UK’s difference-maker last season. Stoops’ pride and joy finished sixth nationally in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense. Along with the personnel losses, coordinator Matt House is now coaching linebackers with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, replaced at UK by second-year assistant Brad White.

White is a young coach with a bright future. The former Indianapolis Colts assistant helped edge rusher Allen leap from a projected middle round NFL Draft pick to the seventh overall selection. White was the obvious in-house choice to replace House, lest a rival school swoop in for a poach.

On the positive side, as Stoops points out, the defense appears strong up the middle thanks to an experienced front, led by nose Quinton Bohanna, and linebackers with star potential. On the negative side, White and Stoops are rebuilding the entire secondary, one hit with a preseason gut punch when experienced safety Davonte Robinson was lost for the season to a torn quad muscle.

The good news for that position group, however, is the good news all around. There is talent to work with; inexperienced talent, but talent just the same. And Stoops has shown a talent for developing talent. The NFL Draft backed up that belief.

One theory argues 2019 will act as a bridge year of sorts, one that provides the experience needed to set up another shot at double-digit victories in 2020. That’s possible. After six seasons of Kentucky winning at least as many games as the season before, few expect that streak to continue.

But last year’s team majored in firsts — first to win 10 games since 1977; first to post a winning SEC record since 1977; first to play in a New Year’s Day bowl game since the 1998 season. This year’s team has a shot at another first, making Stoops the first to challenge Blanton Collier’s place in UK history.

UK’s coaching history

Kentucky football head coaches dating back to Blanton Collier and Paul “Bear” Bryant, the most recent coaches to post winning records during their time at UK:

2013-present: Mark Stoops, 36-39 (.480)

2010-12: Joker Phillips, 13-24 (.351)

2003-09: Rich Brooks, 39-47 (.453)

2001-02: Guy Morriss, 9-14 (.391)

1997-00: Hal Mumme, 20-26 (.435)

1990-96: Bill Curry, 26-52 (.333)

1982-89: Jerry Claiborne, 41-46-3 (.472)

1973-81: Fran Curci, 47-51-2 (.480)

1969-72: John Ray, 10-33 (.233)

1962-68: Charlie Bradshaw, 25-41-4 (.386)

1954-61: Blanton Collier, 41-36-3 (.531)

1946-53: Paul “Bear” Bryant, 60-23-5 (.710)

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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