LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- It was a fine press conference. They always are.
Mark Stoops has been introduced as the University of Kentucky's new football coach, and Wildcat fan or not, you feel the inclination to wish the man Godspeed. He not only enters a fight against the Southeastern Conference big dogs, but against history itself.
Rich Brooks would've hated that paragraph. He waged a sometimes lonesome war against the defeatist school of thought that has permeated the UK football program and its followers for decades. He didn't want to hear about curses or bad luck or disadvantages. And he came as close as anyone has in recent memory to putting the UK program on a plane with its SEC peers.
Rich Brooks had a rare combination of grace and toughness. I don't know how important the grace was, but Stoops is going to need the toughness.
For the record, in all of Stoops' comments in his introductory news conference on Sunday, his best answer came to this question: "What do you see as your biggest challenge here."
"Well it's a tough conference," Stoops said. "You have to be physical. I think it's of great importance that we develop our strength to be able to compete at this level."
Stop the tape. Stoops gets it. It was nice, no doubt, for fans to hear him talk with such clarity about what he envisions for the defense. Like most other UK coaches, even at their introductory news conferences, he talked about an exciting offense.
But in the end, in the SEC, you've got to hit somebody. There were tackles in Saturday's SEC championship game that looked like something out of professional wrestling. It's vicious. And when the game was in the balance, it became a test of brute strength, straight-ahead running, opening holes, charging through them, barreling ahead. You can talk all you want about wanting to have an exciting offense. But in the SEC, if you can't hand the ball off and power out three yards for yourself when you need to, you're not going to win. And if you can't stop someone from doing that, you're in for heartbreak.
UK has displayed that kind of physical play in stretches. Stoops' hope is to instill it as a way of life. It is the defining challenge of the SEC. And you might throw over it or skirt around it for a time, but in the end, you have to stand up to it -- and wrap it up and bring it down, while you're at it.
Of course, it helps if you have really good players. There seems to be a prevailing sentiment that somehow Ohio is being under-represented in UK recruiting. There is talent in Ohio. And UK should take all of that talent it can get. But at the same time, the best players most years in the state of Ohio are going to Ohio State.
And how has Ohio State fared against the upper reaches of the SEC? Or Michigan?
Get good players where they can be found, but in this area too, eventually you have to go toe-to-toe with SEC powers on their turf and get your share from the fertile recruiting fields of Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
Stoops, in his first Lexington appearance was on point. But over the years, there have been many good press conferences -- in fact, there have been many good men and football coaches. Since Blanton Collier was run out in 1961 with a winning record after following Bear Bryant there have been some great resumes and knowledgeable football men come through. Not one has managed a winning record at the school.
Jerry Claiborne was a home-state coach, one of the great builders of programs, even earned a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. He'd gone 61-39-2 at Virginia Tech and 77-37-3 at Maryland. In two years he took UK from 0-10-1 to 9-3. He gave it all he had, but retired with a 41-46-3 mark in Lexington.
It's tough. You don't get a better resume than Bill Curry. Think about this. He went 26-10 at Alabama. He went 26-52 at UK. His coaching mentor? Vince Lombardi. UK will never hire another coach with the kind of pedigree and deep football background of Curry, as far as football history goes. But it didn't work. It was an era of frustration. He went .500 only once, and the next season was 1-10.
What does all that mean? That something is wrong with the school, or the culture? Not at all. UK got close under Brooks, and the formula wasn't magic. He had a good bit of NFL-caliber talent, especially at the skill positions and sprinkled through the defense. And he preached toughness at every turn.
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart and president Eli Capilouto said Sunday that they were committed to football improvements, pending legislative action that will allow UK to more freely spend money that athletics already has to spend. Capilouto all but rallied the fan base to pressure Frankfort on behalf of the school.
It's an important piece of the football puzzle at UK, not because buildings win championships, but because of the neighborhood in which UK is competing. The SEC makes everything more difficult. In fact, to this point, it has made things nearly impossible. Absent a desire to find a new neighborhood, UK is going to have to join the arms race within it.
And it is going to have to stand its ground and try to compete with the best programs in college football on their turf and their terms. That's going to mean taking time. It's going to mean building numbers to the point where you're not running out of defensive backs by the time you get to Arkansas.
It has tried everything else. It's time to get tough, meet the obstacles where they stand, and see if you can develop a bona-fide SEC program, one that pushes through them instead of tries to find ways around them.
Stoops, as a defensive coach, could be well-situated for that fight. He's young and seems to have the energy and the background -- like some of his predecessors have.
"Well, Kentucky's had success," Stoops said. "The key will be to build on that success and be consistent with it and take it to another level. I believe I can bring a strong staff that will help building and recruiting. I believe in this administration to the commitment they're willing to make to the football program. With recruiting, quality staff, development, develop the players that are here, that we can take it to another level."
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