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By Cody Porter
“So this is what the Big Blue Nation is all about right here. I’ve been hearing a lot about it.”
Those words, spoken by new UK football head coach Mark Stoops in his opening remarks, reached out, placing a stranglehold on each fan and player in attendance.
Such a simple collection of words, but enough to sell the former Florida State defensive coordinator as the new coach.
“I’m highly motivated to build this program to national prominence,” Stoops said. “There will be no magic wands to getting this done. We’re going to do it with very much of a blue‑collar mentality. We’ll work every day, be accountable to what we do. Our players will have tremendous character and we’re going to win in the institution and we are going to win with a lot of class.”
And if that didn’t do it, the man quickly picked up on what Louisville means around these parts.
“Oh, I know it’s a good rivalry. We’re going to embrace that rivalry,” he said. “I’ve had some great success in rivalry games.”
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart had many prospective names — more than 200, in fact — that included some of the top offensive and defensive minds in the country, he said.
“We started probably with 200, 250 folks on my board — so to speak, then you sort of funnel your way down to where you get to a spot where you have a handful of folks you want to engage and talk to,” Barnhart said.
Such a list was needed to find a coach to lead one of college football’s toughest jobs. For some, the position would be overbearing. How would they turn around a team that’s a laughing stock of college sports in the eyes of some? That’s especially the case when its own passionate fan base turns into hecklers.
While Stoops’ name could be found on that list, it wasn’t predominant. In every sense, it was a needle in a haystack.
With the proposition of creating a new beginning for the wallowing football Cats understood, Stoops didn’t allow his future to be decided in the manner of other coaches. Contrary to some, UK’s new inspiration sought out Barnhart, detailing a path he thought could allow the Cats to contend in the Southeastern Conference.
“I don’t know if there is a sales pitch. I am who I am. You’ll get to know me as we go forward,” Stoops said. “But, you know, it’s all about recruiting, developing the players that you have, developing them as total people. That’s what I’m all about, doing things right.
“I’m very much of a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I have a plan. We have a vision. But there’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of consistency in what we do.”
Stoops’ vision may or may not include some currently recruited players, as he said Sunday, but for those currently on the team, his vision includes players who can hold their heads high because of on- and off-field success.
“We’re going to work hard, train hard, do things right. They’re going to be accountable and dependable. There’s no other way around that to be successful,” Stoops said. “But I’m going to enjoy coaching them. They’re going to enjoy playing for us. They’re going to enjoy being a part of this Kentucky family. They’re going to hold their heads high walking around this campus.”
Some could plaster fake smiles on their faces, only acting as if the job’s circumstances weren’t an issue going forward. But Stoops spoke with vigor, much like basketball head coach John Calipari nearly four years ago.
Although for Calipari the transformation seemingly occurred overnight, Stoops knows the path less taken in UK’s football history.
“Really not interested in what happened before. We will embrace the past, all the past great players, the past teams,” Stoops said.
One such name is former UK quarterback Tim Couch, who was included in the search process. Stoops said he plans to “lean” on Couch, given his ties to the program.
Couch’s era laid a foundation that Stoops wants to build on — one that brings excitement and can rejuvenate the Bluegrass.
“The key will be to build on that (past) success and be consistent with it and take it to another level,” Stoops said. “We have everything we need to be successful.”
Just as Calipari before him, Stoops’ enthusiasm has him setting the bar high for seasons to come.
His goal, he said, is to have the Cats play in the SEC championship game, “Correction: Not just to play, but play and win.”