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The Right Hire And Time To Succeed Were The Secret To Kentucky Football’s Success

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

The 2012 season of Kentucky Wildcats Football was a disaster. The only two victories were against a bad Kent State team and an FCS team, Samford. The roster was lacking anyone that remotely resembled an all-SEC caliber player. The coaching staff was led by Joker Phillips, a former Kentucky wide receiver and former head coach Rich Brooks’ offensive coordinator. Phillips and his staff had been abysmal, going 13-24 overall, 4-20 in the SEC, in their three years from 2010 to 2012. The recruiting that had existed during Rich Brooks tenure disappeared in Brooks’ final season and the entire Joker era. Phillips had been named “head coach in waiting” toward the end of Brooks’ career and Phillips’ intensity in recruiting noticeably lessened. Naming Phillips “head coach in waiting” is one of a few mistakes that Mitch Barnhart made regarding the Kentucky Football program. He dismissed Joker Phillips after the season. Barnhart redeemed his mistake with his next hire.

On November 27, 2012, the University of Kentucky hired then Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to take over a Kentucky Wildcats football team that was at rock bottom. Coach Stoops brought with him a work ethic and mindset of building the program from the ground up. He also assembled a great coaching staff, which included current West Virginia head coach Neal Brown as his offensive coordinator. Brown was an Air Raid offensive coordinator at Troy University when he came back to his alma mater. Stoops knew that the Air Raid was a sure-fire way to score points, regardless of personnel. Brown’s offense was dynamic, but suffered from having the right personnel. The same problems vexed defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. Eliot had been Mark Stoops’ defensive ends coach at Florida State. He knew what Stoops’ defensive philosophy was and helped him build a defense that reflected its head coach: tough, gritty and reliable. Brown and Eliot both needed better personnel to be successful. The answer to that problem was already on campus.

When he assembled his inaugural staff, the first call Stoops made was to his childhood friend, Vince Marrow. He hired Marrow away from Nebraska and made the “Big Dawg” his tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. He immediately went to work and brought in talent. His first class at Kentucky was ranked 33rd nationally, compared to Joker’s last class that was ranked 50th. The classes that followed were consistently better than Phillips' classes, ranking 22nd in 2014, 38th in 2015 and 33rd in 2016. Those  classes set the tone for future success in Lexington. Marrow’s recruiting classes those first few years included names like Za’Darius Smith, Mike Edwards, C.J. Conrad, George Asafo-Adjei, Logan Stenberg and Josh Allen. All of those players have played on Sundays. This doesn’t include Wildcat favorites like Ryan Timmons, JoJo Kemp and Boom Williams, who were dynamic playmakers, who didn’t achieve NFL success.

After going 2-10 in his first season, there were questions about whether or not Stoops was going to be successful. Two consecutive 5-7 seasons made many fans began to grumble, but those in charge in the UK Athletics Offices knew what Coach Stoops was building. After Neal Brown left to be the head coach at Troy University, Stoops made changes at offensive coordinator, using Shannon Dawson for a season. Dawson was followed by Eddie Gran, Liam Coen and now Rich Scangarello. D.J. Eliot eventually gave way to Matt House, LSU’s current defensive coordinator, and Stoops now has Brad White calling the defensive plays. White’s defensive units consistently rank in the top 25 in most defensive categories. White is a future head coach, with the only variable being when it happens.

Because Mark Stoops was given more time, the investment paid major dividends. During his fourth year, the season was in peril at the halfway point. The Wildcats were 3-3, including a loss to Southern Miss and former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. The Wildcats had barely beaten Vanderbilt the previous week and were facing Mississippi State at home. The season turned for the better that night, the result coming on a game winning field goal by Austin MacGinnis against Mississippi State, one of several he would make as the Wildcats’ kicker. The team went 4-2 on the back half of the schedule, finishing 7-5 overall. More importantly, they finished 4-4 in conference play, the first time since Stoops had taken over.

Since 2016, Stoops’ Wildcats have gone 44-25 overall, and 22-23 in the SEC. Stoops has won 10 games twice in a season since 2018. The Wildcats have appeared in six straight bowl games, winning four consecutive bowls, which is a Kentucky Football record. Stoops has clearly had the support of his players, fans and the administration at Kentucky the last several years. This season has been a challenge for those Stoops supporters. After a shaky 4-0 start to the season, the Wildcats lost at Ole Miss, due to self-inflicted mistakes. As has been the case in previous seasons, one loss turned into to two, with a crushing loss to South Carolina. Coach Stoops has the staff and the players to prevent that from turning into three straight losses. History shows that, aside from his first seasons, Mark Stoops teams do not typically allow losing streaks to grow.

The reason why is because Mark Stoops was the right hire and he was given time to build his program to a level that is consistent. It has also been built so that it can be sustained if he ever leaves. Let’s hope we do not see that day any time soon, and be thankful that he became the coach for this program.


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