LEXINGTON (AP) — Mark Stoops was introduced Sunday as Kentucky’s new football coach and got everyone’s attention, saying he believes the Wildcats are capable of winning the Southeastern Conference title.
He didn’t say it would be easy, but it’s not impossible.
“There are no magic wands,” Stoops said at a news conference.
But Kentucky is confident Stoops can rebuild a program that just finished their third straight losing season and was 0-8 in the SEC.
Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator, received a 5-year, $11 million deal. He’ll begin his work at Kentucky immediately and will not accompany the Seminoles to their bowl game.
“There’s too much work to do at Kentucky and it’s hard to be in two places at once,” Stoops said.
Kentucky had announced on Tuesday that the 45-year-old Stoops was going to be the man to replace Joker Phillips, who was fired on Nov. 4. Phillips was 2-10 this season and 13-24 overall.
Stoops arrived in Lexington less than 18 hours after helping the Seminoles beat Georgia Tech 21-15 for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a likely BCS berth in the Orange Bowl.
He led a Seminoles defense that ranked second in the nation this season and came up with a last-minute interception on Saturday night to preserve their victory over the Yellow Jackets.
Stoops is the third and youngest brother from the famed coaching family to lead his own program. Older brother Bob is Oklahoma’s head coach and Mike Stoops, the former coach at Arizona, is the Sooners’ defensive coordinator.
Kentucky has a storied basketball tradition and the school wanted to show Stoops just how strong its commitment was to putting together a winning football program. So in addition to his base salary, his deal includes a $900,000 bonus for winning six SEC games, the Eastern Division and the conference title.
“We wanted to make sure that Mark knew we wanted him here,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. “We wanted to make sure that he knew we were committed to football, that he has got the resources in terms of dollars to go out and get the staff necessary to get it done.”
Kentucky is Stoops’ first head coaching job. He made his interest in the position known to Barnhart soon after Phillips was fired. Stoops and the AD met the following weekend and continued talks culminating in an agreement last Monday.
The Youngstown, Ohio, native drew a big cheer from the several thousand gathered in Nutter Field House when he said what drew him to Kentucky was “Big Blue Nation. I feel very, very comfortable here. And we have everything we need to be successful.”
Stoops also noted that his successful record at Arizona and Florida State should quell any concerns about his never having been a head coach.
In three seasons as Florida State’s defensive coordinator the team went from being ranked No. 108 to one of the nation’s top defensive units. The Seminoles entered Saturday’s ACC title game allowing 249.4 yards per game.
Before joining Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State staff, Stoops rebuilt an Arizona defense with similar issues that Kentucky has experienced. Arizona was 109th in total defense before his arrival; the defense was ranked in the top 25 in his final two seasons and Arizona earned consecutive bowl bids.
Still, Stoops knows there will be questions about his lack of head coaching experience.
“It comes with the territory,” he said. “If you look at every place I’ve been we’ve been very successful.”
Turning Kentucky around will be one of his toughest challenges. The Wildcats allowed 391 yards per game this season and ranked 11th in the tough, 14-team SEC.
The new coach said he plans to use multiple defensive formations from a 4-3 alignment. Stoops would not name any candidates he would like to hire to complete his staff, but said he has several in mind.
One of his first priorities will be Kentucky’s offense. The Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the conference in several offensive categories. Stoops pledged to the crowd that, “You will have an offense that you guys can enjoy.”
But he knows success in the SEC starts on defense.
“I’m a defensive guy,” Stoops said. “This is the SEC. It’s a physical conference. I realize that. 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.”
Despite the state’s reputation for lacking the type of high-level football talent that can be found in neighboring Ohio or Tennessee, Stoops said there are players in Kentucky that can make the Wildcats be successful and he plans to recruit them. He also plans to follow up on his normal recruiting areas, including Florida.
Stoops was firm in his belief that the Wildcats can achieve a national profile for a sport other than basketball — a bold statement considering that Kentucky is coming off its eighth national title.
”Kentucky’s had success,” said Stoops, noting that he has talked with Wildcats basketball coach John Calipari. “The key will be to build on that success and be consistent with it and take it to another level.”