LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is the new coach at the University of Kentucky. A look at the hire:
1). Stoops, unlike most recent UK hires, has a defensive background. It's a departure from conventional wisdom that has said UK needs to go after a coach with a high-powered offensive philosophy. That's what the school chose with Hal Mumme and his "Air Raid," and more recently with Joker Phillips, whom Stoops replaces.
But if it's about anything, the SEC is about defense and toughness. Rich Brooks, an old defensive back himself and a guy with a hard-nosed defensive background, led UK to its highest level of achievement in the past two decades in 1987, when it upset LSU to bring ESPN's College GameDay to campus. That team was, to be fair, a top-20 offensive unit, but lacked the defense to close the deal.
Stoops, it would stand to reason, will make defense his calling card at UK, and along with it the attitude of toughness that Brooks worked to instill. Frankly, that's much-needed. SEC defenses are so good that they rarely are torched. Even as offensive-minded a coach as Bobby Petrino had to fashion a serviceable defense before becoming competitive in the SEC.
SEC champions are forged by physical running attacks and passing games that can stand up, first and foremost, to A-list defensive lines.
For years, the chorus surrounding UK was that it couldn't beat SEC foes toe-to-toe, that it needed gimmicky offense or to buck the league trend with a passing-oriented attack. The hiring of Stoops is, in some ways, an admission that if you can't beat SEC defenses, maybe you should try joining them. At the very least, it's worth trying.
2). No, Stoops isn't a "big-name" hire. He does come from a good football family, and the name "Stoops," does carry some cache. But those who were waiting for a big-name coach at UK were waiting in vain. A look at the coaching landscape shows that there aren't any big-name coaches in play, even for schools like Auburn and Tennessee.
There are a ton of good coaches out there, but not many rock stars for hire. The best most schools, and certainly, UK in its current situation, can hope for is a rock star in-waiting.
Stoops isn't a big name. But he's the biggest name UK could get, and more important than that, he appears to be a good fit with AD Mitch Barnhart and the school's philosophy.
3). Location matters in coaching. There were names on the UK short list who are coaching programs out west, but Stoops comes from the optimal region for UK to be looking. In addition to his work at Florida State, Stoops spent time in Miami, and the contacts from both could not be more important for Kentucky.
The best thing about recruiting in Florida is that the No. 3, 4 or 5 target on your list could be just as good as the No. 1. Frankly, Louisville has mined Florida for SEC-caliber talent for years. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil. Tight end Gary Barnidge. The list is long. They weren't highly rated recruits necessarily coming out of high school, but Florida's year-round obsession with the sport produces quality talent.
UK doesn't need to dominate in Florida. It's not going to dominate. But it can be in the discussion in a more serious way than it has been, particularly in Miami, where Stoops has significant contact.
Keep an eye out for the name James Coley. The FSU offensive coordinator is one of the top recruiters in the ACC, and could be Stoops' first big recruit if he can lure him to his staff in Lexington.
4). Toward that end, Stoops' continued coaching for Florida State through the bowl season could be a significant benefit for UK. When Louisville hired Bobby Petrino from Auburn, he remained in Alabama to coach with the Tigers and, when the team went to Florida, basically used it as a Louisville recruiting trip. Stoops has an opportunity to do the same at FSU, where he can range out into the state or talk with players who come to watch FSU bowl practices.
Among the "castoffs" Petrino took when Auburn filled up its class were defensive lineman Amobie Okoye and running back Kolby Smith. Both wound up being multi-year starters in the NFL.
5). A quick digression about talent. It's stating the obvious, but let's get this straight. In the SEC, recruiting is 80 percent of a coach's grade. Maybe more. The talent at the upper reaches of the SEC is of such a level that coaching alone won't overcome it. You have to have players, period. Good ones. But if you get them in big enough numbers, you can blend them with the rest of a decent roster and have something.
Stoops' own experience at FSU this season is an example. His defense is a top-10 outfit in every sense of the word. It also features four players who have spent time in the first round of various mock drafts this season, and four others who are second-team all-ACC with a chance to play at the next level.
It's the players. UK proved this in 2007 when it was right on the cusp. There were 10 NFL Draft picks on that team, and three others who made NFL rosters as free agents and are still playing in the league. Offense. Defense. Doesn't matter where a coach's concentration is. Recruiting is priority 1, 2 and 3 in this league. A great x-and-o guy who can't get the right caliber of player, or who doesn't have the contacts in the key areas, isn't going to succeed. One of the main factors that makes Stoops a solid hire is his familiarity with the Southeast.
It's also why UK's commitment to at least some level of recruiting facility improvement is an absolute must.
6). Experience matters. Coaching in the SEC is not an entry-level position, yet Stoops will take his first coaching job at the highest level of college football. It's a concern. It was a problem for his predecessor, even though he had been the coach-in-waiting.
Expect mistakes. Every first-year coach makes them, some of them cost the team victories. Stoops will be assembling a staff for the first time, coordinating practices and making ultimate game decisions all for the first time, against the best teams at the college level. He's the second straight first-time head coach UK has hired, and that's perhaps the main mark against him. But it needn't be a negative. In fact, for most schools, hiring a promising assistant is the only way they're going to get a next-level type of coach.
7). Stoops can rejuvenate the fan base. He's not Bobby Petrino. But UK fans should warm to Stoops quickly. As soon as he was hired, they were selling "Stoops Troops" T-shirts in Lexington. Expect the school to go all-out marketing a fresh start. UK hasn't lacked for football marketing.
What it needs is substance. There's no telling how much of that Stoops will bring, nor how long it will take to change some of the football culture at UK. There will be periods when the changes are barely perceptible, but with time and talent, there's no reason Stoops can't succeed, not even the decades of history with coaches who couldn't. Phillips took over with the program at bowl level, looking to step up to a higher SEC plane. The expectations early for Stoops won't be nearly as high.
Stoops may or may not pan out. But it's hard to argue with the hire on paper. He would seem to possess those things a successful UK coach likely needs. The honeymoon, no doubt, is on. The fact that there is a honeymoon at all is more than his two immediate predecessors had, and at least reason for hope.