“If you want to be a University of Kentucky football fan, you gotta learn how to suffer.”
I cannot tell you how many times I heard my father mutter that phrase along with other, let’s say, choice words seemingly every fall Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium as a kid.
At the time, I thought he was being dramatic and hyperbolic. Surely, no team could have such bad luck and misfortune for its entire existence? But sadly after witnessing over a quarter century of Wildcat football, I can say my dad was 100 percent correct. I won’t waste time reflecting on all the past and recent pitfalls, but I think it is prudent to examine the current state of affairs with Head Coach Mark Stoops.
When he was hired as head coach in December 2012, optimism returned to the program and a good number believed the suffering would come to an end. The man had quite a coaching pedigree and key renovations were coming to program facilities. Plus, his ties to the Buckeye State hinted at having recruiting success in a football-rich state that has traditionally spurned Kentucky. There was a palpable buzz around the Bluegrass.
No matter who inherited the absolute mess of a roster that Joker Phillips left, they would’ve had issues kickstarting this program. Let’s be clear on that. The jury is still out on Stoops, but after consecutive 5-7 seasons, Big Blue Nation is starting to fizzle on Bob’s Baby Brother. However before we delve deeper into the present temperature of the program, we need to go off-road and take a brief detour looking at Stoops’ prior performances before we call for his dismissal.
Stoops got his first crack at calling defensive plays full-time on his brother Mike’s staff at Arizona in 2004. He commanded a respectable defense in most stat categories, but his initial group made its name leading the country in fumble recoveries. Orchestrating a very sturdy unit in his tenure, the Wildcats averaged being a Top35 defense in terms of efficiency under Stoops’ tutelage.
His best defenses forced 25-29 turnovers per year, averaged giving up three touchdowns and a field goal per game and had streaky success at sacks. Stoops was on the staff that helped bring in NFLers LB Brooks Reed and The Incredible Gronk to Arizona. He rode the “bend don’t break” method early in his stint but left the Wildcats a Top25 defense in his final campaign in 2009.
His next stop was at Florida State. Under Jimbo Fisher, FSU was able to build a title-contending roster. Stoops and Co. brought in NFL draft picks Larmarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, Bjoern Werner, Kelvin Benjamin, Tank Carradine, Devonte Freeman, Tre Jackson, Karlos Williams, Mario Edwards and Number One Overall pick and Heisman-winner Jameis Winston.
In 2010, the Seminoles led the nation in sacks and held opponents to under 20 points/game. But in 2011 and 2012, FSU’s defense became a dominating unit. In those years, yardage was hard to come by as they ranked 4th and 2nd in yards allowed, respectively, and only gave up roughly 14 points/game. As we all know, Stoops’ success in Tallahassee ended up with him having his current gig in Lexington.
Simultaneously while Stoops was grooming one of the nation’s best defenses, the Joker Phillips Era was under way in Lexington. Statistically, UK’s defense under Joker was flat out poor. Without much help from the other side of the ball, the defense looked rather porous after being put in tough spots and was overly dependent on creating turnovers. The team averaged in the nation’s bottom half in points allowed and struggled mightily to get to the QB.
Much like the bunch that preceded them, Stoops’ defenses at UK have ranked in the back third of the country in term of efficiency, peaking last season at 62nd. Though Stoops has had Kentucky’s defense improve in yardage and points allowed each year since taking the job, those totals are still worse than the Steve Brown/Rick Minter squads. Stoops has experienced his worst statistical years in Lexington. And I don’t have to tell you, the Cats are not winning a whole lotta games.
Now that we have that exposition out of the way, we can discuss the current matters at hand. Mark Stoops made 3.25M buckaroos this past season. That’s on par with such gentlemen as Jim Mora of UCLA, Dabo Swinney of the College Football Playoff Runner-Up Clemson Tigers, Mike “I’m a Man, I’m 40” Gundy at OK St., Chris Peterson of Boise St. and Washington Huskie fame, Michigan castaway and current Arizona HC Rich Rodriguez, and Chip Kelly’s successor at Oregon, Mark Helfrich. That’s lofty company considering Stoops exited 2015 with a 12-24 career record (one less win than Joker had in his three dismal years at the helm). But keep in mind, the SEC is in a constant arms race upgrading coaching staffs driving up their salaries in the process. Stoops’ salary still stands at 13th in the 14-team conference. Regardless, that a pretty penny to pay for a perennial disappointment.
We all know of the poor finishes, and it’s possible UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart may have jumped the gun giving Stoops a contract extension after a hot 5-1 start to the 2014 campaign. Since then, Stoops’ Troops are 6-13. Do remember as the Brooks Era dwindled down, it was Mitch’s decision to sign Joker to a “head coach in waiting” agreement without even opening the door to other hiring options. He has a history of being rather impulsive in this regard and it’s clear he viewed Marky Mark as a hot coaching commodity.
Stoops is getting it done bringing talent to the Bluegrass and has lived up to his reputation as a excellent recruiter unlike his predecessor. Despite this, that talent hasn’t won too many football games. But it cannot be understated how putrid the roster he inherited was. In the five seasons before Stoops’ arrival, Kentucky’s recruiting class averaged in the middle of the pack of college football at a 54.6 clip according to Rivals.com. The Cats’ classes average about 28th in the country since Stoops stepped in.
Depending on how you look at it, UK either aggressively invested in Stoops or financially handcuffed themselves. Stoops currently has a $15.5M buyout if he was fired today. If Stoops takes UK to eight, nine, ten win seasons in years to come, he would be worth every penny. Heck, most fans will just take seven and a return to Nashville at this point. But even if Stoops keeps underachieving, UK is probably stuck with him for at least two more seasons unless it wants to pay him a whole lotta money to go away.
It took four seasons until Papa Rich Brooks rescued the program. So in theory, Stoops absolutely can get it done. If the past two games against archrival Louisville result in wins, BBN would be singing a much different tune. But frankly, expectations have not been met on Saturdays and the occasional Thursday.
To be blunt, the honeymoon is over and this marriage needs more than an occasional date night to reignite the spark. Big Blue Nation is tired of “next season” talk and deserves some gratification in Autumn. Whether or not they will get it remains to be seen. But most gridiron gurus see the Cats completing 2016 with a third-consecutive 5-7 season unless something crazy happens.
With a new Offensive Coordinator, QB Coach, WR Coach, ILB Coach/Special Teams Coordinator and DB Coach, it is safe to ask whether this new group can quickly mold together a quality on-field product and get this team to a bowl. But with this staff’s best class now front and (under) center, UK is all-in.
Only Mitch knows what his breaking point will be. But if it were me, finishing 4-8 or worse would force me to consider letting Stoops go. However ultimately paying $12M, the buyout amount after next season, plus the cost of a brand new staff just isn’t worth it. Plus, the flip-side of this potential dilemma is who would take this job knowing no coach exited with a winning record in over four decades.
Odds are those candidates would either be a leathery coaching vet or another hot-shot coordinator. After two consecutive whiffs going with the latter, hiring a retread is probably the path UK would take. Brooks was such a hire but is remembered as being “successful”; the Cats went to four straight bowls but he still finished with a sub500 record. However in all likelihood, bringing in a seasoned coach would certainly lack the sizzle to reenergize the beleaguered BBN.
Knowing these options, it is best to just sit back and see what Stoops can do.
Stoops has preached plenty the past few years on improving day-to-day, but you all know talk is cheap and actions/results speak louder than words. After three tries at this, it is assumed the team will finally find an identity. If it doesn’t, it will be another long fall.
Defense is Stoops’ strong suit and has seen the least turnover in coaches and philosophy, so it is only natural that the team will rally around that side of the ball. Stoops wanted to establish physicality from day one on the job, but as we all know, has not materialized on the gridiron.
And even though UK may be locked in and heavily invested in Stoops, that doesn’t mean BBN will be if he fails to prove he is taking this program in the right direction, which may or may not be reflected by the team’s record. Only he can decide whether UK invested in him to be the program’s financially handcuffed themselves to another loser head coach.
It’s third and long for Stoops… and I can speak for the rest of the Kentucky Blue Bloods, I am tired of suffering.