Mark Story

FSU is a better football job than UK — but would it be a better fit for Mark Stoops?

Wisely, Mark Stoops said nothing Monday in his first public comments about the newly vacant Florida State head coaching job that would limit any future options.

Since FSU announced Sunday it had parted ways with head man Willie Taggart, Stoops, a former Florida State defensive coordinator, has been widely linked in the media to the opening.

Asked about that at his news conference previewing Kentucky’s Saturday home game with Tennessee, the UK head coach said “it’s something you don’t really want to address in-season. I guess it’s better than the alternative.

“For us, for myself, it’s 100 percent concentration on Tennessee. It’s all I want our team focused on. It’s all you can do. I guess with success you are going to have some (job speculation).”

That was an adroit answer.

If Stoops is interested in FSU, his words conveyed to the Florida State brass a willingness to listen.

If Stoops knows he wants to stay at Kentucky, his words nevertheless maintained leverage (it’s called the Calipari maneuver) over the UK administration.

What should Stoops do if FSU comes calling?

Objectively, Florida State is a better football job than Kentucky.

Last season, Stoops coached UK to its third double-digit win season ever at 10-3.

Florida State has had seven seasons of 10 wins or better in this decade.

Yet, if FSU makes him an offer, what Stoops has to figure out is whether Florida State is really a better fit for him than Kentucky is.

The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans are all too familiar with the grim history of Wildcats football coaches.

Stoops is the 10th Kentucky head coach in my lifetime. Of the previous nine, five were fired, one resigned under pressure, one left after two seasons for a more lucrative head coaching offer and two retired.

All nine departed Lexington with losing records at Kentucky.

Blanton Collier with Lou Michaels.JPG
Blanton Collier (41-36-3 from 1954 through 1961) is the last Kentucky Wildcats football coach to leave Lexington with a winning record at UK. Herald-Leader file photo

Yet there is viable reason to think the Kentucky job Stoops now holds does not have to be the career graveyard it was for many of his predecessors.

Historically, lack of high-level football facilities has undermined UK coaches.

A $110 million stadium renovation completed in 2015 and the $45 million in private funds that Stoops helped raise to build the state-of-the-art Joe Craft Football Training Facility have finally changed that paradigm.

Kentucky President Eli Capilouto and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart have consistently shown support for Stoops (40-43 in his seventh season) by enhancing his contract four different times.

At UK, Stoops is already paid like a Florida State head coach. According to the USA Today coaching salaries database, FSU’s Taggart was the 15th-highest paid coach ($5 million) entering 2019, while Stoops was 19th ($4,763 million).

In Lexington, Stoops is in a contiguous state to his Ohio recruiting base.

The Youngstown, Ohio, native’s ability to consistently reach into the Buckeye State and pull players has helped surmount the biggest historical drawback to being the Kentucky head coach: The commonwealth’s inability to produce enough SEC-caliber prospects to make UK consistently competitive in the SEC.

A son of gritty northeast Ohio, Stoops has been a good fit in Kentucky, a state whose ethos is blue collar.

Still, if he could get the Florida State job, the benefits Stoops would reap are considerable.

He would move to a league, the ACC, where only Clemson can rival the natural advantages FSU enjoys.

Mark Stoops at FSU
Mark Stoops spent three seasons (2010-2012) as the defensive coordinator at Florida State. Phil Sears AP

Stoops would also gain an in-state recruiting base in one of the most talent-rich of all the 50 states.

However, recruiting the Sunshine State has become increasingly complex.

According to the 24/7 Sports Composite Ranking, seven of the top 10 players in Florida in the class of 2020 are committed to out-of-state schools. In 2019, the top six prospects all left Florida; for 2018, nine of the top 10 departed the state.

Of course, you could start recruiting at the 75th-rated player in Florida in any given year and still pull a bountiful class.

If he can land the FSU job offer, Stoops will face this bottom-line choice:

Does he wish to restore a fallen Florida State program that Bobby Bowden built and where both Bowden and Jimbo Fisher won national titles?

Or does he want to stay at Kentucky and seek to fulfill the aspiration of leading UK to its first-ever appearance in a SEC Championship Game?

The Wildcats were one win away from making the elusive trip to Atlanta in 2018.

Status as a statewide icon awaits the Kentucky football coach who gets the Wildcats to the SEC Championship Game.

If Florida State offers the Kentucky coach its job, no one could blame Stoops for taking it.

But, unlike the immediate past decades, it would not be crazy for Stoops to decide to keep coaching football at UK, either.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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