In my 2009 column, when John Calipari became the new head basketball coach at Kentucky, I described UK’s hiring of the former Memphis coach as a grand slam home run.
And what about UK’s newest football coach, Mark Stoops of the famed Stoops family tree?
In baseball terminology, how should we describe UK’s latest coaching move? Should that be a single? Or a double? Or a solo home run?
How about a triple?
Stoops, the former defensive coordinator at Florida State, is a very good hire for the Wildcats, who haven’t been able to come up with a winning record in SEC action in nearly two generations with the last one taking place in 1977 when they went unbeaten in six league games.
I also asked one news media person who covers Florida State football on a regular basis about Stoops and got his reaction about the new “Kentucky and Stoops” marriage.
“I think it’s a perfect fit,” said Ira Schoffel, who is the sports editor for the Tallahassee Democrat (Tallahassee.com). “Mark has succeeded at a very high level as a defensive coordinator, and I think he has proven that he’s ready for his shot to be a head coach.
“And Kentucky couldn’t ask for a better person to lead its football program. Not only is he very sharp intellectually, but he is an exceptional communicator, and his players absolutely love him. I think he and Kentucky can do really good things together.”
What about Stoops’ relationship with the media and the fans?
Schoffel said Stoops, while working for FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher, actually didn’t have many opportunities to speak with the media. That’s because Fisher believes in “one-voice” team approach that he learned as an assistant coach under then-LSU coach Nick Saban. As a result, since Fisher is the voice of FSU, Stoops only talked to the media once a year.
“(But) when he (Stoops) did speak with us or in the public, he was extremely personable and insightful,” Schoffel said. “You could certainly see why his players like playing for him so much.”
The sports editor added he is “really looking forward to watching Mark’s career develop in Lexington. I think he has a ton of potential, and it will be fascinating to watch how he runs his own program, and how it’s similar or different to his brothers’ and to Fisher’s.”
Nevertheless, it appears Kentucky has taken the step in the right direction by hiring a proven coach who knows defense. To be a member of SEC’s elite, you need to have a good defense to play competitive football.
“I’m a defensive guy. This is the SEC. It’s a physical conference. I realize that,” said Stoops, 45, during Sunday afternoon’s introductory press conference in Lexington. “I want to be tough and I want to be physical. We have to build this foundation with great defense.
There’s no way around it. If you don’t play great defense, you’re not going to win consistently.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be less focus on offense at UK and Stoops said his offense will be a joy to watch.
“We’re going to have an offense you’re going to be proud of,” Stoops said. “We’ll get out there and rip it around it a little bit; we are going to throw it.”
Stoops — a Youngstown, Ohio, native who has a five-year, $11 million contract (which translates into a yearly average of $2.2 million) with incentives — knows a lot about winning. Even as a player at Iowa under Hall of Fame coach Hayden Fry, Stoops participated in four bowl games before finding success later as an assistant coach with numerous bowl trips.
For the Wildcats to be a consistent winner, Stoops said he will put together a strong coaching staff and find recruiting success along with the critical support from the school administration.
“I believe in this administration to the commitment they’re willing to make to the football program,” said the new mentor. “With recruiting, quality staff, development, and develop the players that are here, we can take it to another level.
“We’re going to recruit Kentucky hard and take care of our home. We’re going to recruit Ohio very hard. I have strong ties in Ohio. There are very good football players in Ohio. We’ll work through the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia a little bit.”
While he has never been a head coach on the college level, which is a negative, Stoops though will bring a lot of useful experience to the table and he won’t be intimidated by the powerful SEC teams after stints at Florida State (three years) and Arizona (six years) where he overhauled defense and became successful at both schools.
Stoops even served on a national championship team in 2001 when he was the defensive backs coach for the 12-0 Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes. His Miami team led the country in pass efficiency defense, scoring defense and turnover margin that season. His other two Miami teams were very successful as well, posting 12-1 and 11-2 marks and participating in the national title game after the 2002 campaign (losing to Ohio State in two overtimes).
While at Arizona from 2004 to ‘09, Stoops was defensive coordinator and DBs coach, working for his brother, Mike, who was head coach of the Wildcats. Mark and Mike are also brothers of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, with Mark being the youngest of the three. (Mike is now the defensive coordinator on Bob’s staff at Oklahoma.)
Last Saturday night Stoops had a few memorable moments in his last game at Florida State at the end of the Seminoles’ 21-15 victory over Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. The emotional highlights included the game-saving interception by safety Karlos Williams (which turned out to be Stoops’ last defensive play at FSU) and getting soaked in a post-game Gatorade bath.
And the Big Blue Nation is sure hoping they will see a repeat of these exciting moments at Kentucky in the very near future.