Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops followed a tough act at SEC Football Media Days -- Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
HOOVER, Ala. (WDRB) – Mark Stoops' first game as the University of Kentucky head coach will be against Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky Aug. 31. Stoops will shake hands with Charlie Strong (Louisville), Steve Spurrier (South Carolina) and Nick Saban (Alabama) by the halfway point of the 2013 season.
Wednesday Stoops faced a more daunting task than the Crimson Tide or Cardinals. Stoops followed Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner, at SEC Football media days.
That's like reading for a part after Meryl Streep or following Chris Rock at the Comedy Club.
Stoops was the next person in front of the microphones after the chattering horde was finished asking Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback, about his faulty alarm clock, hydration issues and the suffocating world of college football celebrity.
Nervous? Wouldn't you be?
"A little," Stoops said before departing a suite on the 12th floor of the Wynfrey Hotel to plunge into several conference rooms stuffed with more than 1,000 media members. Remember Stoops was permitted to talk to the media once a year as the defensive coordinator at Florida State.
Stoops handled himself as well as he has handled nearly everything since UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart hired him to replace Joker Phillips last Dec. 2. He was poised, polite and persistent in his pitch that Kentucky can become just as successful in football as the Wildcats are in many other SEC sports.
"From the moment I arrived on campus at Kentucky, I just felt so good about the support," Stoops said. "The people are starving to have a good football program."
I polled several national media members. All of them said Stoops did well. They are aware of the early recruiting success Stoops has delivered. And, yes, they are aware of how daunting the assignment is to win big at Kentucky.
"I've seen coaches get up there and freeze and I've seen others who went up there the first time and turned green," said Ron Higgins of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "He did fine."
It helps that Stoops has one of the most beloved names in Kentucky football history running interference. Tim Couch has transformed from UK quarterback and top NFL draft pick to Fox Sports analyst. Couch loved the Stoops' hire when Barnhart made it. Couch loves it more today.
"I don't know if I've ever experienced Kentucky football with this much excitement around it as I do right now," Couch said.
Hmmmm. More than 1998 when Couch led the Wildcats to seven wins and a spot against Penn State in the Outback Bowl?
Couch did not retreat.
"Maybe just because it's been down the last couple of years so bad," Couch said. "It was at a point where everyone thought it couldn't get any worse. Now we've got a coach with a name, a Stoops name, we've got an exciting coordinator (Neal Brown, running the offense) and we're starting to get these recruits in. It's exciting. It's great to see."
Understand that nobody is predicting greatness this season, not even Stoops. The official media predicted order of finish for 2013 will not be released until Thursday. It will be a colossal upset if Kentucky is picked higher than seventh (last) in the East Division.
Four wins will be a good season. Five will be a great season. Six wins and a bowl game would be otherworldly.
Stoops said that Jalen Whitlow, Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles are still scrambling to win the starting quarterback position, that depth remains an issue, especially on defense, and that he will continue to demand accountability from his players.
"It's really, to be honest with you, an uncomfortable situation for me because it's not my style, really, to temper those expectations," Stoops said.
"I think the educated fan knows where we're at as a program, knows we have a lot of work to do. But the flip side of that is I want the excitement. I want (the fans) there. I want them to support our players that we have on our team right now."
Stoops has all that -- and more. He even survived following Johnny Manziel.