Stoops not 1st coach to struggle in UK debut

Jamie H. Vaught/The Sports Zone

December 3, 2013

LEXINGTON — Personally, as it turned out, I guess the highlight of last Saturday night’s Kentucky-Tennessee football game was watching a live video of Auburn’s miraculous game-ending TD in defeating Alabama on my colleague’s laptop in the press box at Commonwealth Stadium.

That’s because yours truly, along with a friendly Big Blue crowd of nearly 55,000, didn’t get to see a close UK-UT encounter, and the Wildcats couldn’t do much to overcome a fast start by the Vols, dropping in a 27-14 decision. Tennessee — which raced to a 20-0 first-half lead with three exciting scores of at least 40 yards — was just simply the better team in an ESPNU matchup of two bowl-less, weak SEC squads.

Under first-year coach Butch Jones, UT finished the campaign with a 5-7 mark, meaning the struggling Vols now have had a sub-.500 record for four straight years.

The 2-10 Wildcats — who honored 19 seniors during their pre-game festivities, including tight end Anthony Kendrick (who hauled in his first career TD in the second quarter) — now have lost 16 straight SEC games. In other words, they are winless in conference matchups for exactly two years.

Losing to Tennessee was a “tough way to lock up the season,” said first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing with the officials in the second half. “You know, (it’s a) frustrating loss, but give credit to Tennessee. They played better than us, made plays when they needed to, coached better than us.”

Stoops is joining a long list of UK football coaches who have posted a losing record in his first year as the Wildcat boss.

Stoops’ predecessor, Joker Phillips, didn’t have a winning team in 2010, his first season as the head coach at Kentucky.

And Rich Brooks didn’t win either, in 2003, followed by Guy Morriss in 2001, Hal Mumme in 1997, Bill Curry in 1990, Jerry Claiborne in 1982, Fran Curci in 1973, John Ray in 1969 and Charlie Bradshaw in 1962.

The last UK mentor to field a winning squad in his first year at the Wildcat helm was Blanton Collier, who guided the Cats to a 7-3 record in 1954 despite setbacks to nationally-ranked teams, No. 3 Maryland and No. 9 Ole Miss, in their first two games of that season.

Speaking of Collier, he had a difficult job in following Paul “Bear” Bryant, a future legendary figure who left Lexington after eight successful years of winning (71.0 percent) as the Kentucky boss.

But Collier did a remarkable job, posting a respectable 41-36-3 mark in eight seasons at UK, including a 5-2-1 record against Tennessee.

Collier then went to the Cleveland Browns in the NFL where he directed the club to five divisional championships and two trips to the NFL Championship Game, including a 1964 league title, during the pre-Super Bowl era.

Looking ahead to the 2014 schedule, Kentucky will kick off its new season, facing Tennessee-Martin and Ohio in the first two games at home before heading to Gainesville to meet the struggling Gators, who will be coming off a poor 4-8 campaign.

And five of the Cats’ first six games of the season will take place at the friendly confines of Commonwealth Stadium, including SEC home dates with Vanderbilt and South Carolina in late September and early October.

UK’s other two non-conference opponents are Louisiana-Monroe and Louisville.

As you may already know, the Cats will no longer play the Vols in a traditional regular-season finale. Instead, they will travel to U of L, which will start performing as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014, to complete their regular season.

Kentucky will face the Vols in Knoxville in the next-to-last game of the campaign on Nov. 15.

So, as you can see, UK’s 2014 schedule sure has a different feel from the previous years as the Cats will be meeting their two major rivals — UT and U of L — on the road in two consecutive season-ending games.

Nevertheless, Stoops’ troops should have more weapons and begin to show improvement in winning more contests down the road in 2014 and beyond.

“I know we’re progressing,” said Stoops moments after the setback to Tennessee.

That’s good to hear.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at jamiehv22@gmail.com.