LEXINGTON – If you define the phrase “home run hire” as meaning some guarantee of success, a can’t miss deal, then it’s much too soon to use that phrase to describe the hiring of Mark Stoops as the new football coach at the University of Kentucky.
But I will say this: Kentucky could not have a better first step toward football success than Stoops, who’s been the defensive coordinator at Florida State the past three seasons.
That’s if you’re willing to acknowledge that no amount of money was going to bring a Bill Cowher, a Jon Gruden, Urban Meyer or Nick Saban here.
But Stoops is only a first step.
If athletics director Mitch Barnhart, the rest of the UK administration and, most importantly, the school’s boosters, do not provide more financial support for the football program, no coach will be able to bring long-lasting, big-time success here.
There are some who believe that Barnhart does not have the charisma to draw the money needed from boosters.
Amidst all the hoopla around here Tuesday about the Stoops hiring, I heard several people more in the know than I am, say that Barnhart has met in recent weeks with boosters, pledging to make football here a priority.
If that happens, and only if, then Mark Stoops appears to have the pedigree to be a home run hire for Kentucky.
If the pledged support from the UK administration does not happen, then Stoops will be gone, in, oh, maybe two years and 10 games.
All the 45-year-old Stoops appears to lack as a candidate is head coaching experience. But 99.9 percent of you reading this know that his family pedigree is largely one of astonishing success.
Mark’s oldest brother Bob has resurrected traditional power Oklahoma over the past decade-plus.
The other Stoops brother, Mike, made a program similar to Kentucky’s – the Arizona Wildcats – a consistent winner several years ago. Yes, Mike was eventually fired at Arizona, but that came after he spoiled those Wildcats with back-to-back 8-5 seasons.
Mike is now the defensive coordinator under Bob at Oklahoma.
FSU defense is No. 2
It’s hard to argue with Mark Stoops’ success as the top defensive guy at Florida State under head coach Jimbo Fisher.
The Seminoles ranked No. 108 in total defense three years ago when Stoops took over the defense at FSU. They are ranked No. 2 in the country now.
During the past three seasons, Florida State has gone 10-4, 9-4 and 10-2 now, pending the outcome Saturday of the FSU-Georgia Tech battle in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte.
“He has done a tremendous job for us here as defensive coordinator,” Fisher says of Stoops. “This opportunity is well deserved. He is very well prepared, and I think he will do one heck of a job for the University of Kentucky.”
Stoops is expected to leave for Lexington after the ACC final and have an introductory press conference here on Sunday.
As a sidenote, I’ve heard in some circles that the press meeting will be held at Keeneland, which strikes me as odd. I wonder, tongue in cheek (I think), if UK doesn’t want Stoops to see historic Commonwealth Stadium any sooner than he must.
Prior to his stop in Tallahassee, Stoops spent six seasons as defensive coordinator under his brother Mike at Arizona.
Stoops also was the defensive backs coach at Miami of Florida, including 2001, when the Hurricanes won their last national championship.
The other notes of caution I would offer here are twofold:
1. Florida State has played only two outstanding teams this season — Clemson and Florida –—and both of those opponents moved the ball pretty much at will against the Seminoles.
2. It would seem unlikely that Stoops will be able to attract the kind of recruits to Kentucky that he has to Florida State. Though Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons would be a nice start.
Now, here are the reasons why the obvious enthusiasm about this hire in the UK fan base may well prove to be merited, aside from the above-mentioned bloodlines:
1. Stoops is, by all accounts, an energetic coach – a guy who brings great intensity and enthusiasm both to recruiting and on-the-field coaching.
That’ll be a nice change at UK.
2. If anybody CAN recruit well to Kentucky, it may well be Stoops. He has great contacts in Florida, in the West (where his juco ties in Arizona could lure at least some short-term, stop-gap players here), and in Ohio.
Stoops is a native of Youngstown, Ohio, and a former coach in the Ohio high school ranks.
Florida and Ohio are obvious high school football hot beds – two places where UK has not had much recruiting success, in, well, never.
3. The enthusiasm sweeping through UK Tuesday about Stoops is not limited to the immediate area. Stoops has a terrific reputation as both a good guy and a great football coach, both with his current and former players, and with his peers in coaching.
Many of those who have spent the last four years laughing at Kentucky football are not laughing so much with this hire.
4. Stoops, by all accounts, genuinely wanted the Kentucky job well before it was offered. Stoops approached Barnhart before the UK athletics director approached Stoops. Not only that, but Stoops reportedly brought his plan for success here to the first interview.
“Mark’s passion has been evident in the way he coaches and in his love for the game of football,” Barnhart said in a press release Tuesday. “That passion carried over into our process, and his desire to wear the Blue and White.
“Our desire to get better defensively and continue to expand our recruiting base helped guide us to Mark. He comes from a coaching family and has been in big games and big atmospheres throughout his career.”
Said Stoops: “I am thrilled to be named the head football coach at the University of Kentucky. My family and I are excited and looking forward to becoming a part of the Big Blue Nation.”
I am also pleased to hear that former UK quarterback Tim Couch played some role in UK’s search for a new coach and, specifically, in conversations with Stoops.
I wouldn’t mind at all seeing Couch be a bigger part of Kentucky football, perhaps as a quarterbacks coach.
The bigger factor, however, in talking about Stoops’ staff here with be his hire of offensive coordinator.
There was some talk Tuesday that Stoops might bring FSU offensive coordinator James Coley here. Former UK player Neal Brown, the wiz-kid offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, also would be a popular hire for UK.
UK might need a name like one of those two guys to attract FSU-type offensive talent here, like, well, Ryan Timmons.
All we know for sure, in the short term, is that excitement is back at rustic Commonwealth Stadium.