Mark Stoops understood the daunting task that awaited him in Lexington long before he was introduced as Kentucky’s third head coach since 2009 in late November. He wasn’t blind to the fact that he was taking over a program -- in the SEC -- that has experienced far more excitement over dunks and layups than touchdowns.
But Stoops left his cushy job as Florida State’s defensive coordinator for the Bluegrass State with a plan. He took over Kentucky’s program, which said goodbye to third-year coach Joker Phillips after three straight losing seasons only weeks before, with the idea of first creating a much more physically and mentally fit team.
“We gotta get our players to buy in and believe and change the mentality around here from top to bottom,” Stoops said in a phone interview with ESPN.com earlier this week.
Stoops cares about schemes and relishes an aggressive defense that can raise hell, but he understands that in order to turn things around at Kentucky, he has to start from the ground floor. Sure, it’s cliché, but it’s the only way to improve a team that checked out last year and has consecutive seasons without a bowl berth.
That process started with a very tough offseason regime that his strength staff implemented. He couldn’t be there to constantly monitor players, so he made sure his players felt his wrath with a taxing workout schedule.
So far, Stoops is pleased with the results, as he said players reported to spring practice on Monday looking better physically and with much more positive attitudes. But for Stoops to get some real substance out of this team, he’s going to ask for even more from his players.
“With everything that we’re trying to do, we’re trying to be very demanding of them in all aspects of the program,” Stoops said. “There's not one position on our field that we don't need to improve.”
Kentucky went from reaching five straight bowl games to going a combined 7-17 during Phillips’ last two years. During that span, the Wildcats lingered around the bottom of the SEC in most offensive and defensive categories and lacked the toughness needed to have any real success.
The toughness process is in full swing, but Stoops knows the future will be based on early success and, of course, recruiting.
Stoops isn’t up to speed on all the recruiting tactics and shortcomings of Kentucky’s previous staff, but he knows he can’t build without the right athletes. Stoops said recruiting priorities are to own the state of Kentucky, make more of an impact in Ohio and keep a strong connection to Florida.
Stoops did a solid job in all three of those areas in his first class by signing three of the top 10 players in the state of Kentucky, including ESPN 300 defensive end Jason Hatcher, who spurned USC, and ESPN 300 receiver Ryan Timmons, who turned down Florida and Ohio State. He also grabbed three players from Ohio and nine players from Florida.
Stoops came away with the No. 36 recruiting class, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and said he could feel a change in Kentucky’s perception the more he and his coaches went on the road.
“I’m very pleased with the reception that’s been given to us [on the recruiting trail],” he said. “It’s been very encouraging for our future.”
The hope is that the future is a lot brighter than the past.
Kentucky hasn’t had a winning record in SEC play since going 6-0 (10-1 overall) in 1977. Since then, the Wildcats have had 23 losing seasons.
Things momentarily turned around with help from Rich Brooks in 2006 when Kentucky started a string of four straight winning seasons and a five-year bowl run, the longest such streak for the Cats since the 1950s. During that time, Kentucky went 3-1 in bowl games and against archrival Louisville. The Cats also beat the likes of Arkansas (twice), Georgia and a No. 1 LSU team (2007). In 2010, Kentucky even upset No. 10 South Carolina.
So, there is some recent success to build on, and while the excitement around the program dipped considerably last year, Stoops said he felt embraced by Big Blue Nation almost immediately after he was hired.
There was a record crowd around to celebrate with him on national signing day and the athletic department has been very aggressive about upgrading the football facilities. The school plans to spend approximately $110 million on renovations to Commonwealth Stadium and the Nutter Training Center.
Stoops is building from within, while the school builds around him. This won’t be a quick fix, but Stoops feels he’ll have what he needs to make Kentucky relevant in the SEC again.
“We have everything that we need and with the resources with the things that we’re building and the commitment that they have to upgrading our facilities," Stoops said, "we’re going to have everything we need to be successful and competitive in this league."