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OPINION: It took time, but Stoops has Cats near national prominence

LEXINGTON – September 16, 2021 – KEITH TAYLOR

Mark Stoops had never been a head coach when Mitch Barnhart hired the long-time college defensive coordinator nearly a decade ago.

Barnhart knew the Wildcats needed a makeover after Joker Phillips failed to capitalize on the momentum Rich Brooks built at the end of his tenure as coach. Under Phillips, the Wildcats won just four games in the Southeastern Conference during a three-year span, including an 0-8 finish in his last season in 2012.

A year removed from his departure from Florida State, the Seminoles won the national championship as Stoops was just getting started laying the framework for future success. As expected, it didn’t happen overnight, and in his first 38 games as coach of the Wildcats, Stoops compiled a 12-26 record, including a 2-10 mark in his initial campaign.

Despite a turnover in offensive coordinators — four in the past nine seasons — Stoops remained focused on taking the program to new heights. He has guided Kentucky to a school-record five consecutive bowl games, with the Wildcats winning their last three postseason contests. No other coach since Paul “Bear” Bryant won 50 or more football games at Kentucky and Stoops just needs nine more wins to tie Bryant as the school’s all-time winningest coach.

Slowly, Stoops parlayed the program into one that’s starting to gain national attention and one that has become a player in the SEC East, especially during the past five years. The Kentucky football job is now considered one of best in the nation, and credit goes to Stoops for helping the Wildcats gain respect on a national scale.

“I guess I take that as a compliment, because when I got here, I can guarantee you it was a bottom 10 (coaching) job,” he said Wednesday. “… when I talked of taking (the Wildcats) to national prominence when I walked in here, people laughed at me, and (now) we’re on our way.”

The Kentucky coach shrugged when asked about his success as coach of the Wildcats.

“It’s not about me. It’s about our program, it’s about our kids, our staff, there’s a lot of things that go into it,” Stoops said. “I’m just the guy holding down the seat for right now.”

Although Bob Stoops made a name for himself as coach at Oklahoma, Mark has followed his brother’s footsteps climbing the ladder of success albeit with his own style and own team.

“I am what I am. It’s day-to-day, it really is. It’s week-to-week — that’s how I look at it,” he said. “I like my job, I like what I do, I like our team, I like where our program is right now. But it’s truly one day at a time. You know, and I know, how quickly that can be flipped.” 

The work isn’t done. The Wildcats have nine more games to play this season, including the remainder of an SEC schedule that includes consecutive contests against Florida, Georgia and LSU.

After winning two straight to open the season, including a hard-fought win over Missouri in the conference opener last weekend, Stoops said the best is yet to come.

“We have no intention os slowing down,” Stoops said.

It’s full speed ahead for Stoops and the Wildcats.

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