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Stoops, Kentucky officially meet at festive introduction

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Mark Stoops was introduced as Kentucky's head football coach on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Mark Stoops was introduced as Kentucky's head football coach on Sunday. (Hunter Wilson, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops had never been to Lexington. He had certainly heard about it, but he had never experienced firsthand the passion of Kentucky fans.

On Sunday, he got an up close and personal look.

Making his way through a crowd numbering in the hundreds of current and former players, cheerleaders, band members, boosters and athletic department staff, Stoops strode to an elaborate podium erected in the middle of the Nutter Field House. With a big screen and a floor-to-ceiling banner behind him, Stoops succinctly summed up his thoughts on it all.

"So this is what the Big Blue Nation is all about right here, huh?" Stoops said.
 
Capping a whirlwind week during which he agreed to become UK's next head football coach while helping Florida State prepare for a conference championship game as defensive coordinator, Stoops flew to Kentucky from Tallahassee, Fla., for his official introduction. Flanked by Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and President Eli Capilouto, Stoops spoke at length about his background and his philosophy.

"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."

In fact, that vision is the primary reason Stoops landed a five-year contract as head coach that will pay him a base of roughly $11 million with incentives. When Barnhart and Stoops talked at length for the first time about the position on Nov. 10, Stoops provided exceptional detail in spelling out his plan for Kentucky football. In other words, Stoops conducted himself like a man whose 20-plus-year coaching career had been building to this opportunity.

"I've been impressed with what he's had to say and how he's going about it," Barnhart said. "He's very thoughtful. It's clear this guy is 45 years old and he's been around it his entire life and he's thinking about it all the time. This is something he's been waiting for and he's been working toward his entire career."

And it was just any head coaching job he was working toward; it was this one specifically.

"I cannot tell you how excited I am to be your football coach," Stoops said. "I'm highly motivated to build this program to national prominence. 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."

Throughout the more than 40 minutes he sat answering questions in his suit and tie and Kentucky hat, Stoops exuded enthusiasm. If you ask Barnhart, that trait extends well into Stoops' everyday dealings. That's good to know because there was little about Sunday's press conference disguised as a pep rally that could be termed "everyday."

"He and I text back and forth a lot and there wasn't a time where his energy didn't come through, even in a text message," Barnhart said.

Stoops had his first chance to share some of that zeal with a few members of his new team immediately after his press conference, shaking hands with the current players who had made their way to the event. First thing on Monday morning, Stoops will meet with the entire team for a more detailed introduction.

"I'm going to tell them to look forward to it," Stoops said. "A lot of coaches take these positions and try to scare them, tell them how hard it's going to be. It's going to be hard. There's no way around that.  We're going to work hard, train hard, do things right. They're going to be accountable and dependable."

Inevitably, he will be telling players some hard truths about what will be demanded of them. Along with that, Stoops will make sure to let them know fun will be had.

"I'm going to enjoy coaching them," Stoops said. "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."

Stoops' now-former players are surely doing just that on Florida State's campus right now. On Saturday night, the Seminoles won the Atlantic Coast Conference title over Georgia Tech, 21-15. In celebration of the victory, Stoops was showered with Gatorade by his defensive pupils after they held the Yellow Jackets' potent triple-option rushing attack to more than 100 yards below their season average.

For Barnhart, the performance reinforced a belief he carried throughout his search for Joker Phillips' replacement, a belief that defense must be a priority for Kentucky to compete at a high level in the Southeastern Conference.

"At the end of the day, I wanted us to be better defensively so we didn't have to be so perfect on offense and that was really, really important to us," Barnhart said. "That was where I started."

With that in mind, Stoops - who has engineered dramatic defensive turnarounds at both Arizona and Florida State as a coordinator - was a logical candidate. Each of the past two seasons, the Seminoles have ranked among the best units in the country after allowing more than 30 points a game in 2009, the year before Stoops arrived.

"We'll be very defined in what we do now defensively moving forward," Stoops said. "We'll play with four down (linemen), 4-3 personnel. Of course, we'll be very multiple from there. But, again, I have a very clear vision of what we want to do defensively. Our players will know after the first spring exactly who we are and what we're all about."

Stoops went on to say he has targeted a single candidate to be his defensive coordinator, meaning a major priority in his first week on the job will be finding his offensive coordinator. Since his background as a player at Iowa and as a coach is on defense, he realizes how important the hire is.

"I'm planning on going out and interviewing a few offensive coordinators here real soon," Stoops said. "I've been in conversations. I feel real good about the prospects for the offensive coordinator."

He may not yet know who his coordinator will be or the details of his scheme, but does know UK will field an offense that will be able to throw the football.

"We're going to have an offense that you guys are going to enjoy," Stoops said. "I promise you that."

As for how success will be defined, neither Barnhart nor Stoops were shy about stating their goals.

"To play in the SEC Championship game," Stoops said. "And to win it."

Doing that is one of the few ways it's possible to imagine Kentucky supporters being more excited about Stoops being their head coach that they were on this day. Over the next nine months, Stoops, his staff and his players will work toward that end. When they emerge and play their first home game on Sept. 7, 2013, Stoops is hoping for a crowd with energy similar to the one that packed Nutter on Sunday.

"The one thing that I ask you to do: I ask the Big Blue Nation to fill Commonwealth Stadium each and every week next year," Stoops said.
 

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