Mark Story

Should Mark Stoops get out at Kentucky while the getting is good?

The most shocking achievement for Mark Stoops and his resilient Kentucky football team is not that the Wildcats (7-1, 5-1) opened at No. 9 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings.

Nor is it that the Cats will face No. 6 Georgia (7-1, 5-1 SEC) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Kroger Field in a winner-take-all showdown for the SEC East crown.

No, the most unexpected UK football accomplishment of 2018 is this: Next Tuesday, the Kentucky men’s basketball team opens its season against hated rival Duke. Yet this week, I literally have not heard one UK fan talking about the hoops Cats’ face-off with the House of Krzyzewski.

In the Big Blue Nation, the entire focus is the high-stakes football throw-down between the Cats and the Dawgs. That Kentucky football has stolen the spotlight from a UK-Duke men’s basketball game is a bigger upset than the University of Maryland-Baltimore County over Virginia.



It’s funny how quickly things can change. Back in the summer, the question that surrounded Stoops’ tenure at Kentucky was what the coach needed to achieve in his sixth season not to end 2018 on the hot seat.

Now, many Cats backers are worrying about whether Kentucky can keep Stoops.

Having put UK someplace it has never been before — one victory away from the SEC Championship Game — should Stoops be looking to get out while the getting is good?

History says yes. Stoops, 51, is the 10th Kentucky head football coach in my lifetime.

Of the previous nine, five were fired; one resigned under pressure; one left for a more lucrative job after only two seasons; and two retired after honorably fighting the good fight.

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All nine departed Lexington with overall losing records as Kentucky head coach.

Yet, for at least three reasons, the Kentucky coaching job Mark Stoops holds in 2018 is not the same as his nine most-recent predecessors had.

1. Facilities.

Competing in the football-crazed SEC, facilities will never be an advantage for Kentucky.

However, UK invested $110 million to renovate the former Commonwealth Stadium for 2015. Concurrently, Stoops tapped some of the big-money Kentucky boosters who traditionally had supported men’s basketball. That helped fund UK’s posh, $45 million Joe Craft Football Training Facility.

The result is that, for the first time in modern Wildcats football history, facilities are not a disadvantage for Kentucky.

2.) Contract.

Kentucky has given Stoops one of the most “coach friendly” contracts in big-time college football.

According to the USA Today salary data base, Stoops is the 23rd highest paid coach in the country in 2018 at $4,013,600.

By contract, Stoops’ pact with Kentucky rolls over one year anytime the coach reaches seven wins in a season. That has already activated in 2018. If UK should reach 10 wins, Stoops would get a two-year contract rollover.

Meanwhile, for each victory starting with seven in a season, Stoops earns a bonus of $250,000.

UK’s generous stance toward Stoops has not always been popular. After Kentucky opened the 2016 season 0-2, Stoops stood 12-26 as UK head man, 4-21 in SEC games.

At that time, Stoops’ contract buyout was $12 million, a figure that inflamed many Cats fans.

Since then, Stoops is 21-11, 13-8 in SEC contests. That has validated the faith UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart showed in Stoops with the coach-friendly contract.

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Mark Stoops, forefront, has validated the faith Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, right, showed in him via a generous coaching contract. Jonathan Palmer

3.) Recruiting “base.”

Historically, the single biggest factor that has kept Kentucky football from being competitive in the Southeastern Conference is that UK’s in-state recruiting base is not nearly as fertile as that enjoyed by most of the league teams with which it must compete.

Yet because of the roots that Youngstown, Ohio, products Stoops and recruiting coordinator, Vince Marrow, have in the Buckeye State, Kentucky has essentially expanded its recruiting “home base” to a second state.

Eight of the 22 starters expected to take the field for UK against Georgia — George Asafo-Adjei; C.J. Conrad; Dorian Baker; Lynn Bowden; Benny Snell; Jordan Jones; Mike Edwards; Darius West — are Ohioans.

You will note that list includes many of Kentucky’s better players.

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Youngstown, Ohio, product Lynn Bowden is part of the Buckeye State recruiting pipeline that has helped Mark Stoops elevate the Kentucky Wildcats football program. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

So, should Stoops be looking to turn his current success at Kentucky into a career move? Not necessarily.

There are some coaching positions — think Ohio State, Florida State, jobs of that ilk — that are too good to turn down if they are ever offered.

Yet if UK looses Stoops to a historically elite football power, it will mean the coach has taken the Wildcats program to giddy heights.

The bottom line is Stoops can stay at Kentucky with more realistic opportunity to succeed than any of his nine immediate predecessors ever had.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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