If I’ve learned one thing in my years covering college football, it’s that every coaching hire has to be evaluated differently. What might be a home-run selection at one school could be a dud at another; a guy who might be a perfect fit at one place could be a disaster somewhere else. Every coach, and- most importantly- every job is fundamentally different, and they need to be treated as such when evaluating these coaching hires.
And in essence, what I was really trying to say with that very long-winded opening paragraph was as follows: I like the Mark Stoops hire at Kentucky. A lot.
No, he might not have the huge name or sparkling resume of some of the other SEC hires this off-season, but at a school that is simply looking for hope and a reason to show up at the stadium, Stoops is exactly what Kentucky needed. He is young and energetic and will pump life into a football program that desperately needs it.
Of course while hope and energy are good in the short-term, in the long-term the question now becomes this: Will Stoops be able to win enough football games at one of the toughest places to do so in college football?
Let’s take a look.
Why We Like The Hire:
Simply put, Stoops resume speaks for itself. As most everyone knows by now, Stoops has spent time as an assistant at Miami and as defensive coordinator at Arizona and Florida State, with the one common denominator in all his stops being that his defenses have flourished.
And to his credit, Stoops’ defenses have only gotten better of late. In 2011 Florida State ranked No. 4 in total defense and this past season only Alabama gave up fewer yards than the Seminoles did. And before anyone says that it had little to do with Stoops and everything to do with the talent in Tallahassee, remember this: Florida State ranked 108th nationally the year prior to his arrival.
Even talented players need to developed, and Stoops seems capable of that.
Beyond that, what particularly appealed to me about this hire is that Stoops actually knows the area he’ll be coaching in. Kentucky isn’t an easy place to recruit and the SEC isn’t an easy place to coach, which is why I was never really a fan of bringing someone from outside the Southeast (mainly Gary Andersen or Mike MacIntyre) to try and tackle this job.
Well instead of taking either of those guys or anyone else, they instead a guy Midwest roots (the Stoops family is from Ohio) but Southeast ties, making him the best of both worlds from a coaching and recruiting standpoint. More importantly with so many coaching stops around college football, Stoops can and has put together a staff that is as competitive as any in this conference.
Remember when I mentioned this hire above? Yeah, I wasn’t lying.
Why We Don’t Like the Hire:
What it all boils down to is what you already know: Stoops has never been a head coach. Anywhere. That’s a scary proposition no matter who you hire, and regardless of what school you’re hiring him to. But to do it at one of the toughest jobs, in college football’s toughest conference makes it that much tougher.
So really, the questions now with Stoops are more abstract than anything tangible. We know who Stoops has hired as his assistants, we know (relatively) what kind of offenses and defense Kentucky will run and we know what his recruiting plan is too. What we don’t know is how he’ll handle the responsibilities off the field, not to mention the split-second decisions on the field which could be the difference between victory and defeat.
As much as I like the hire, there are still plenty of questions which surround Stoops and Kentucky.
What Kind of Talent Does He Inherit?
Hmm, the short answer is “not much.” Talent is something Kentucky has never had a bounty of at any point in their football history, and it was in especially short demand in 2012 when they finished last in the SEC in scoring (just 17.9 per game) and gave up the second most points on defense in the conference as well (31 per game). It also doesn’t help that the Wildcats will also lose their best overall playmaker (wide receiver La’Rod King) and only player to make either the All-SEC first or second team (offensive lineman Larry Warford) to graduation this off-season as well.
Still, of the few players who did make an impact on the field in 2012, most do return. The Wildcats return four of their top five leading tacklers on defense (including all three starting linebackers) and plenty of guys who got touches at wide receiver and running back.
Of all the players who return to Lexington though, what’ll be most interesting to see is how Stoops handles the quarterback derby. Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles all took at least 40 snaps this past season, and all three return in 2013.
There’s an old saying that goes “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none at all.” So what happens if you’ve got three?
It’s something Stoops will need to address right away.
Yeah, But Can He Recruit?
The short answer here is that I’m a little more dubious than most. Stoops was known as an avid recruiter at Florida State, except, relatively speaking, what does that mean? After all, it isn’t all that hard to recruit to Florida State; the tradition speaks for itself, the school has more resources than any in the ACC and Jimbo Fisher himself is a monster recruiter in his own right. So was Stoops really that good a recruiter? Or was his success just a byproduct of where he was recruiting to?
Of course while I am dubious about Stoops’ recruiting ability, what I will give him credit for is this: Whether he can actually get players or not, only time will tell. But at the very least, he does have a plan to be successful.
For one, that plan starts in Ohio where there’s a ton of high school talent, but is also a place that former head coach Joker Phillips and his staff never seemed to emphasize in their recruiting efforts. Well to his credit, the Stoops name still carries a lot of weight in Ohio (Stoops’ father is a legendary high school coach there) and from Day 1, Mark has taken advantage of that. Kentucky has already offered a number of the state’s top players, including a handful of elite juniors.
More importantly, Stoops has loaded up his staff with guys who can recruit too. New defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot comes with Stoops from Tallahassee, where he was known as a monster recruiter, but was also the point-person in the recruitment of last year’s No. 1 overall high school player Mario Edwards Jr.
Also, the was one other assistant coaching hire which caught my eye as well: New defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh is coming to Kentucky straight from a Mississippi junior college.
That seems like a bizarre move... unless Stoops plans on hitting the junior college ranks hard to find talent.
Admittedly, when Stoops was hired by Kentucky, my biggest concern was that he would essentially try to turn the program into “Florida State Light.” That he would take the blueprint which made Florida State successful in his time at Tallahassee, and try to follow it to a tee in Lexington.
And it would’ve been a disaster. Kentucky isn’t, nor ever will be Florida State, and should never be treated as such.
That’s also why it’s been so refreshing to see Stoops come to Lexington with a plan completely unique to this particular school and this particular job. We all know what he and Eliot will do on defense, and Stoops also brought in Neil Brown from Texas Tech to run a fun and exciting offense as well. In recruiting, the emphasis seems to be exactly where it should be: Stocking the roster from Ohio high schools, and filling in the blanks via the junior college ranks.
Factor it all in, and I think this was a grand-slam hire for Kentucky.
Stoops might not have been a great fit at every school, but relative to what Kentucky wanted and what Kentucky needed, he was just about perfect for them.
Final Grade: A-
For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football and beyond, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.