The UK football team falls to Mizzou at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 1, 2014.
Following Kentucky’s upset of South Carolina last season -- the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in UK history -- Coach Mark Stoops excited the Big Blue Nation by proclaiming, “We’re just getting started!”
Given the improvement evident on the field and the recruiting trail during his first two years on the job, and the blue-collar work ethic he displays daily, Stoops has a strong chance of fulfilling that vow.
On the field, the Wildcats improved from two wins in his first season to five victories last season -- not the end result Stoops seeks, of course, but undeniable progress nonetheless.
Stoops’ three recruiting classes have ranked higher in the Rivals.com rankings than any previous classes in the history of the recruiting evaluator.
With the reinvention of Commonwealth Stadium and construction of a new football training complex on the horizon, Stoops is continuing the enthusiasm and momentum he’s inspired since being introduced as UK’s head coach in December 2012.
Now, Stoops turns his attention to his third season, where he will work to continue the turnaround of Wildcat on-field fortunes. Part of the acclaimed Stoops coaching family, he has a history of dramatic improvements during his time as defensive coordinator at Florida State and Arizona.
Stoops was defensive coordinator at FSU from 2010-12, inheriting a unit ranked 108th in the NCAA in total defense and turning it into one of the nation’s best. In the 2012 season, the Seminoles were second in the nation in total defense, allowing 254.1 yards per game, and sixth nationally in scoring defense at 14.7 points per game. Playing well against the run and the pass, FSU was third in the country in rushing defense and led the nation in pass defense. FSU led the ACC in seven defensive categories. Stoops also coached the defensive backs under head coach Jimbo Fisher.
Eight Seminoles on defense earned 2012 All-ACC honors, including four first-team selections, highlighted by one of the nation’s top defensive end duos in Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine, who combined for 24 sacks and 31 tackles for loss. Werner was a finalist for the 2012 Bronko Nagurski Award as the National Defensive Player of the Year and was among the national leaders in sacks with 13. Stoops also coached cornerback Ronald Darby to ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Seminoles’ prowess was a continuation of the 2011 season, when Stoops’ defenders led the nation in fewest yards allowed per carry (2.3), ranked fourth in the nation in total defense (275 yards per game), second in rushing defense (82.7 ypg), fourth in scoring defense (15.1 points per game), and eighth in tackles for loss (8.6 per game) and quarterback sacks (3.1 per game). FSU led the ACC in eight defensive categories.
Stoops overhauled the Florida State defense in 2010, his first season as defensive coordinator. The Seminoles gave up 19.6 points per game, third-best in the ACC and 20th nationally. FSU ranked 42nd nationally in total defense that season; in contrast, the team was 108th nationally in total defense and 94th in scoring defense in 2009, the year before Stoops’ arrival. FSU improved its overall defense by more than 80 yards per game, primarily by limiting opponents to 75 fewer rushing yards per game. The Seminoles ranked third in the nation in quarterback sacks and were 21st in tackles for loss. In the secondary, Stoops coached Xavier Rhodes to ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and National Defensive Freshman of the Year accolades.
During Stoops’ three seasons, FSU went 10-4, 9-4 and 12-2, including wins over South Carolina in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl, Notre Dame in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl and Northern Illinois in the 2013 Orange Bowl.
Stoops was defensive coordinator and DBs coach at Arizona from 2004-09, working for his brother, Mike, who was head coach of the Wildcats. During Mark’s time there, Arizona’s records improved steadily, going 3-8, 3-8, 6-6, 5-7, 8-5 and 8-5. The Wildcats advanced to the Las Vegas Bowl and Holiday Bowl during the last two years. Mark and Mike are also brothers of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, with Mark being the youngest of the three. Mike is currently the defensive coordinator on Bob’s staff at Oklahoma.
Stoops inherited an Arizona unit that was 109th in the nation in total defense and 107th in scoring defense in 2003, the year before he arrived. By the end of his term at Arizona, the Wildcats ranked in the nation’s top 25 in total defense his final two seasons and ranked as high as 33rd in scoring defense.
Prior to Arizona, Stoops coached the defensive backs three years at Miami (Fla.). The 2001 national champion Hurricanes led the nation in pass efficiency defense, scoring defense and turnover margin. That team also established a school record with 27 interceptions and 45 total takeaways.
Stoops’ 2002 secondary led the nation in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. Despite having to replace all four starters in the defensive backfield, the 2003 team led the nation in pass defense. In his three seasons, Miami went 35-3, including the 12-0 Rose Bowl title campaign, plus appearances in the Fiesta and Orange bowls. Ten Miami defensive backs who played at least one season under Stoops were eventually selected in the National Football League draft – seven in the first round.
Stoops got his first experience in leading a defense as co-defensive coordinator at Houston in the 2000 season. He coached the secondary at Wyoming from 1997-99 and the Cowboys notched three straight winning seasons. A highlight of his time there was a school-record 24 interceptions in the ’97 season. His first full-time coaching job was in 1996 at South Florida, helping USF in the start-up of its program before the Bulls had their first kickoff in ’97.
Stoops has recruited and developed numerous outstanding defensive backs, many of whom went on to National Football League careers. Among the notables are Antoine Cason and Michael Johnson at Arizona, Miami’s Philip Buchanon, Kelly Jennings, Brandon Meriweather, Ed Reed, Antrel Rolle, Mike Rumph and Sean Taylor and Wyoming’s Brian Lee.
Stoops was raised in Youngstown, Ohio. Like his brothers, Mark played in the secondary at the University of Iowa for Hall of Fame coach Hayden Fry. He participated in four bowl games as a player. Fry hired Stoops as a graduate assistant coach at Iowa in the 1990 and ’91 seasons. The Hawkeyes won the 1990 Big Ten title and played in the Rose Bowl, duplicating feats Stoops also achieved as a player. Stoops went on to coach four years in high school before entering the collegiate ranks.
Stoops and his wife, Chantel, have two sons, Will and Zack.
What They're Saying About Head Coach Mark Stoops ...
"He is one of those assistant coaches who has been elevating his game as a defensive coordinator ... He has great pedigree being a Stoops brother and the fact that he has worked with some outstanding head coaches helps his cause. I think he is ready to go (be a head coach). That is a great choice (for Kentucky)." - ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit
"The more I learn about the youngest of the college-coaching Stoops brothers, the more I like about what Mitch Barnhart did in luring him to Lexington. Stoops turned around Florida State's defense in short order, which was impressive (and why he got the job), but I really like the way he's gone about hiring a young, respected staff." - Travis Haney of ESPN.com, who rated Stoops as the second-best coaching hire in the nation.
"I think he's one of the big reasons for the turnaround at Florida State. He's just done a fantastic job. I think Jimbo Fisher himself would say he's probably the biggest reason for their turnaround." - Legendary Florida State Head Coach Bobby Bowden
"If it was a 3-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, then Mitch Barnhart has hit a long drive that's headed straight for the seats. Time will tell if it's a round-tripper, but from this vantage point it sure looks like Barnhart has hit a home run ... " - John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader
"If new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops' results are any indication, UK's defense can expect quick and sustained improvement. As a defensive coordinator at Florida State (2010-12) and Arizona (2003-09), Stoops inherited defenses ranked outside the top 100 in yards per game. Both teams improved to the top 25 by the end of his time." - Aaron Smith, CatsIllustrated.com
"I'm very proud of him. Very happy for him. He got an opportunity to go on and further his career and it's something he wants to do. I'm happy for him. I think he's a hard worker. He cares about what he does. He's very diligent about what he does. He truly loves coaching." - Florida State Head Coach Jimbo Fisher
"I was more happy for Coach Stoops than anything. He's a coach that's put in his work. He doesn't have to explain that it's best for him and his family and sets him up for what he needs. That's a blessing for him. He's a great man and he deserves it."- Florida State defensive back Lamarcus Joyner
Media Reaction from Coach Stoops' Consensus Top-25 Recruiting Class ...
Coach Mark Stoops and his relentless staff brought home Kentucky's highest-rated class in the Internet era of recruiting evaluation, scoring a No. 17 ranking on Rivals.com, No. 20 by ESPN.com, No. 21 by Scout.com and No. 22 by 247Sports.com Fifteen members of the 28-man class received a four-star ranking in at least one of the above-mentioned services. Ten of the signees were listed at least once in the RIvals Top 250 players, the ESPN Top 300, the Scout Top 300 or the 247 Top 300. The national media took notice and were generous in praise of UK's recruiting success. Here are some excerpts from what was written:
Can Kentucky Ride its Improved Recruiting to SEC Success? Stoops and his staff have not hesitated to compete against big-name programs on the recruiting trail. And Kentucky has won more than a few of those battles: The Wildcats beat out Louisville, Tennessee and South Carolina for Barker; Auburn, Clemson and LSU for all-purpose back Stanley Williams; and Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State for Elam. - Chris Johnson, Sports Illustrated
Kentucky - yes Kentucky - An SEC Presence in Recruiting "We're definitely not afraid to compete with anybody in the country," Stoops said. In a recruiting cycle that many coaches say featured rampant player poaching. Kentucky would have been a logical poaching victim. But the Wildcats locked up much of its class a year ago and didn't lose traction. About sixteen of its 28 players committed before the end of last summer, Stoops said. - Jeremy Fowler, CBSSports.com
Most Impressive Classes in the SEC No. 2: Kentucky Rundown: This ain't your grandfather's Kentucky. It's not your father's or your older brother's, either. Mark Stoops didn't have the highest ranked recruiting class in the country or even the SEC, but the top-20 class far outpaced even the highest expectations. The signees speak for themselves -- an infusion of young talent desperately needed for the road ahead -- but the overall statement Stoops and his staff made going out and landing the best of the best was huge. Nabbing four-star defensive lineman Matt Elam fom Alabama sent shockwaves through college football. It not only said that Kentucky was here to play; it's here to play and win. - Alex Scarborough, ESPN.com
Mark Stoops Makes Splash With 2014 Class Quietly, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops made an emphatic statement with his 2014 recruiting class: The Wildcats aren't going to sit idly by and watch the big boys have all the fun ... Stoops rubbed shoulders with the SEC's best, signing 28 players, including six ESPN 300 members and eight four-stars. Stoops flipped a Florida State commit and beat out Alabama for a highly coveted defensive tackle. He snagged a top 10 quarterback and filled critical holes on both sides of the ball. - Edward Aschoff, ESPN.com
Signing Day: The Hot Fad in Recruiting is the Hand-Written Letter One day last April, Kentucky bombarded Matt Elam, a 340-pound tackle from Elizabethtown, Ky., with 69 letters. It followed up several months later with 182 letters. Not to be outdone, Notre Dame shipped Elam 270 letters in November, a postage ploy that Fighting Irish recruiters call a "pot of gold." The outsize attention paid off for Kentucky last week when Elam--who said he received 50 letters on a normal day--chose the Wildcats over not only Notre Dame but also Alabama, which has won three of the last five national titles and is expected to land the nation's top recruiting class this year. - Ben Cohen, Wall Street Journal
The Big 10's Kentucky Problem These superlatives of each Big Ten recruiting class and more were discussed on BTN during the network's Football Signing Day special. Left off the table was a matter of frank conversation of how badly programs in the Big Ten, excluding Michigan and Ohio State, were smoked on the recruiting trail by Kentucky of the SEC. Kentucky's recruiting class would rank as the third best of the Big Ten, two spots behind Michigan for second-best. - ElevenWarriors.com