Mr. CFB: Kentuckys Patience With Mark Stoops Has Paid Off

Patience is defined as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.”

Patience, by any definition, is in very short supply when it comes to the sport of college football.

We have reached the midway point in the 2021 season and already three head coaches at the FBS level have been shown the door: Clay Helton at USC, Randy Edsall at UConn, and Chad Lunsford at Georgia Southern.

There are also a host of assistant coaches who have already been let go because, well, after a big loss somebody has to pay.

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I get it. There is so much money involved and so many constituents to please, there is neither the time nor the inclination for patience. When I started as college football writer a million years ago, new coaches got five years to build a program. Now, if things are not headed in the right direction midway through the THIRD year, the coach is gone, usually with a nice buyout, and an interim head coach takes over to finish the season.

But there still places in college football, although rare, where patience is still a virtue. That’s what makes the University of Kentucky one of the best stories in college football.

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Mark Stoops, brother of Bob, became head coach at Kentucky in 2013 after a successful stint as the defensive coordinator at Florida State. The UK football program, which had fared well under Rich Brooks (2003-2009), had slipped under Joker Phillips (13-24 in three seasons).

Stoops, whose 2012 Florida State defense would win a national championship the following year, took the Kentucky job with the assurance that he would have time to build a program.

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“I knew exactly what needed to be done,” Stoops said when we talked Monday night. “If they wanted a quick fix then I was not going to be their guy. I knew exactly what I was getting into at Kentucky.”

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UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart (no relation to this writer) promised Stoops that he would get the time he needed to build the program.

That mutual understanding was tested early. 

In Stoops’ first three seasons the Wildcats went 2-10 (0-8 SEC), 5-7 (2-6), and 5-7 (2-6). If you’re keeping score that’s 12-24 overall and 4-20 in the SEC.

In 2014 Kentucky started 5-1, which included a three-overtime loss to Florida in a game the Wildcats should have won. UK finished with six straight losses. In 2015 Kentucky started 4-1, which included a 14-9 loss to Florida, and then lost six of its last seven.

There were people—loud people—who wanted Stoops gone.

But looking back, Barnhart remembers that all the signs were there that the program under Stoops was heading in the right direction.

“He was beginning to find leaders in his locker room. The players were taking ownership of the program,” said Barnhart. “We were beginning to establish an identity of who we wanted to be.”

For Stoops, job security was never a concern.

“People who know football know if a program is trending in the right direction or not,” said Stoops. “You’re either believable or not. I never gave anybody a reason to fire me.”

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Kentucky not only kept Stoops, the administration doubled down by investing serious money into the football program.

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They spent $50 million to build the Joe Craft football training facility, a state-of-the-art office and workout complex.

Kentucky spent another $120 million for a total makeover of Commonwealth Stadium, actually reducing capacity to a comfortable 61,000. It is now Kroger Field.

And for the past two games, when Kentucky beat Florida and LSU, Kroger Field has been rocking.

“Our crowds have been incredible,” said Stoops. “Our fans and our players deserve this.”

Now look at where Kentucky football is today:

**--The Wildcats have gone to five straight bowl games and have already qualified for a sixth.

**--The Wildcats are 6-0 for the first time since 1950, when Paul “Bear” Bryant was the head coach.

**--Kentucky has started 4-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1977.

**--Kentucky beat Florida in Lexington for the first time since 1986 and has beaten both LSU and Florida in the same season for the first time since 1977.

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And on Saturday, Kentucky will play one of the biggest games in its football history as the Wildcats (6-0) go to No. 1 Georgia (6-0). ESPN’s College Game Day will be in attendance as will the SEC Network’s SEC Nation. The game will be nationally-televised on CBS (3:30 p.m.). There will be a capacity crowd of 92,000-plus at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium.

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The two teams have played 74 times (Georgia leads 60-12-2) and the Bulldogs have won 11 straight, the longest streak in the series. With Georgia at No. 1 and Kentucky at No. 11, this is easily the biggest game these two schools have ever played.

“You play in the SEC because you want to be a part of big games,” said Stoops. “And when you get the chance you have to take care of what’s in front of you. This is a chance for our guys to play in another big game against a great football team.”

This Kentucky team will be different than the previous eight Stoops has put together.

Despite going to five straight bowl games, Stoops decided after the COVID season of 2020 that he needed to update his offense. He made what he called “one of the toughest decisions of my life” and released Eddie Gran, his offense coordinator and very good friend.

“It was personally hard because Eddie was such a big piece of the success we have had the past five years,” said Stoops. “But there are times when you have to make a tough call. It was still the right decision.”

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Stoops got on a plane and flew to the West Coast where he talked to 35-year-old Liam Coen, the assistant quarterbacks coach of Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams. Coen blew Stoops away in the interview, explaining with a presentation of over 300 plays he felt would work within Kentucky’s power running game.

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Kentucky tapped the transfer portal to sign quarterback Will Levis, a transfer from Penn State, and explosive wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, a native of Frankfort, Ky., who previously played at Nebraska.

Kentucky doesn’t blow you away with numbers in the passing game. The Wildcats ran for 330 yards last week against LSU. But there is no question that the Wildcats are much more explosive on offense with Coen calls the plays an stretches the opposing defense with Robinson.

We’ll see how that goes against the nation’s No. 1 defense, which leads the nation with only 5.5 points allowed per game. Kentucky is 3-14 all time against No. 1.

“Without question they have a national championship defense,” said Stoops. “Georgia is the most complete team we’ve seen. But this is an incredible opportunity for our guys.”

It is an opportunity that may have never come for Kentucky without patience. 

Source : https://www.si.com/college/tmg/tony-barnhart/kentucky-stoops

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