LEXINGTON — Coach Mark Stoops said he did not come up with the ‘Why Not?’ phrase that has become a slogan for University of Kentucky football since he and his staff took over the program some 14 months ago.
The slogan was featured most recently in a well-produced UK football ad that ran on Central Kentucky television channels during the recent Super Bowl.
“Our marketing people did a great job with that,” Stoops said of the ‘Why Not?’ battle cry Wednesday during national signing day. “And I agree with it. Why not? What the heck? Let’s go.
“That’s kind of the approach we’ve had since we’ve been here. We’re not here to play seconds to anybody. We’re here to compete at a high level in a great conference.”
Whoever gets the credit — marketing, Stoops and his assistant coaches, the UK administration and pending upgrades in facilities, the coaches’ wives, and numerous behind the scenes people — big things are clearly happening around Kentucky football.
Stoops and several of his assistant coaches met with the media Wednesday to celebrate the school’s best recruiting class ever. It’s a class that rates nationally from No. 13 to 20, depending on what service you look at.
Stoops said that 28 of the 36 recruits he brought in for campus visits signed with the Wildcats — an astonishing success rate.
Most notably, the Kentucky coaches went into talent-rich Ohio and landed 11 of the top 50 prospects in that state. They signed as many top 25 players from Ohio, seven, as did the mighty, in-state Ohio State Buckeyes.
Stoops and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow are Ohio natives and have long family roots in that state. Stoops said he told UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart that Ohio would be a priority when he took the job here.
“I told Mitch from the very beginning, we’re going to recruit within a six-hour radius of this school,” Stoops said. “There’s a lot of people you can get to in a day’s drive from here. And with me being from Ohio, that was easy. Just the proximity with southern Ohio being such easy access, you can get to an awful lot of people in Ohio in a short drive.”
Weather is one pitch to Ohioans.
Asked about Kentucky’s cold winter so far, West Chester, Ohio, running back signee Mikel Horton said: “This is way better than Ohio, I’ll tell you that. Ohio is like Alaska.”
Kentucky also landed, arguably, the top four prospects from Kentucky in quarterback Drew Barker (Conner), and defensive linemen Matt Elam (John Hardin), Lloyd Tubman (Seneca), and Adrian Middleton (South Warren).
“It’s huge for the success of our program to keep the kids that are the best players and the best fits for us in the commonwealth,” said UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who played high school ball at Boyle County. “We feel like the four best players in the commonwealth this year are great fits for us.”
But Kentucky signed players from nine other states as well, with only Texas and Florida being outside an easy day’s drive.
“(Seattle quarterback) Russell Wilson said it best at the Super Bowl: ‘Why not us?’” said T.V. Williams, a wide receiver signee out of McKinney, Texas, when asked why he signed with Kentucky. “Why not us? Why can’t Kentucky be the next Auburn or Missouri — teams that didn’t win any SEC games and then wound up in the SEC championship? I really think that’s something we can do.”
Cory “C.J.” Johnson, a junior college signee, said Kentucky has plenty to offer, starting with fans that badly want a winner.
“I tell guys, you are coming into the SEC, and you are coming into a Kentucky program where the fans are amazing,” said Johnson, who’s from Columbia, South Carolina and played defensive tackle at ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“The coaches here give you what you want. They are the nicest guys. They are honest. When they tell you something, they keep their word. And when you sign here, you are coming into great opportunities to step on the field right away and play. So, why not Kentucky?”
Horton, Williams and Johnson are three of seven recruits who graduated high school in December and have been on campus at UK for several weeks, working out, attending classes and preparing for spring ball.
One of numerous remarkable aspects of this rebirth in Kentucky football and faith in Stoops and company, is that the Wildcats are coming off a rocky, 2-10 season under the new coaching staff.
Stoops and company made do this past fall with little talent leftover from the Joker Phillips’ tenure, and a handful of very talented, but very young newcomers, like Franklin County wideout Ryan Timmons.
This 2014 class should see Kentucky take a step forward.
But, points out Dorian Hendrix, a signee at linebacker from Huber Heights, Ohio, none of the UK coaches have painted an unrealistic picture of the program.
“They let us know it’s going to be a process,” Hendrix said. “They didn’t say we’re going to go out there next season and be undefeated or make a bowl game. But, they were positive the entire time. They said, ‘We know we’re going to get better.’ And I believe it.’”