Mark Stoops' three signature achievements at UK

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

Just as Cats Illustrated laid out John Calipari's three biggest accomplishments at Kentucky to coincide with his two-year extension, we're doing the same with Mark Stoops.

Stoops was also given two more years to his contract, which now runs through 2022, on Wednesday.

Here are his three biggest accomplishments in Lexington through a shorter period of time than Calipari (four years), and in a much more difficult job.

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3. Bringing pride, respect and a foundation back after the Joker Phillips years

Stoops probably doesn't get enough credit for this. Earlier this offseason the social media account for a sports journalism website (not ours or Rivals.com) innocently floated a comparison of the records posted by Joker Phillips and Mark Stoops through similar points in their tenures. The inference being, of course, that what they had accomplished was basically the same. But everyone who follows Kentucky football knows that nothing could be farther from the truth, because the trajectory of the program under Stoops has been almost completely the opposite of the course it took under Phillips.

It's going to be hard for fans to tip their hats to Stoops for a pair of 5-7 seasons in his second and third years, and even more so because each team had so many opportunities to get to six and the postseason. Those late-season losses contributed to a collective fatigue and probably an unfair sentiment that things weren't getting better. The losing streaks weren't good, but there were a lot of reasons for them: Mediocre-to-bad quarterback play, depth that was still below average, back-loaded schedules to name a few.

But when you look at the whole picture now it tells a clear story: Stoops took a team that had an impressive SEC losing streak and went 2-10 just as you'd expect. Then he won 10 games over the next two seasons, which was undeniably improvement even if still frustrating, and last year's seven wins that really vindicated Stoops and led to his extension.

Kentucky has not seen a win total decrease one time under Stoops if he stays long enough. It will happen at some point and fans should keep perspective when it does. Hopes are high for 2017 because UK returns a quarterback, a staff of offensive assistants, Benny Snell, some star power on defense and most of its two-deep. But there's always the possibility of regression in the SEC.

Regardless of how 2017 plays out, the progression thus far has given Stoops, almost without question, the greatest job security out of any coach in the SEC East. That's almost impossible to fathom given his hot seat after two games last fall.

So how has he done it? That's the subject of something on its own, but in short it's safe to say that recruiting was far and away the number one factor that drove Kentucky from two wins to ten over the next two years. What took Kentucky from five to seven wins is tougher to figure. It wasn't just higher-ranked classes, because Stephen Johnson had a lot to do with it. So did some new coaches on the staff. In short, as Mark Stoops has built a more solid foundation by great recruiting he has also evolved as a head coach, making smarter hires that are maybe less attractive on the surface, coaching to his strengths and making the hard decision to step in when the defense struggled under his long-time friend D.J. Eliot.

The foundation that has been built thus far has created a sense of optimism and the belief that brighter days yet are still to come, and those dreams don't seem unfounded on the surface.

Where Kentucky football is today and even where it was one, two or three years ago is immeasurably better than where it was when Phillips left. It might not have seemed like that after UK's 45-7 loss to Florida, which followed the loss to USM, but it's true.

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2. The 2016 win over Louisville and subsequent berth in the TaxSlayer (Gator) Bowl

Before Kentucky's 2016 win over Lamar Jackson and Louisville, what was Mark Stoops' signature win?

There have been three straight wins against South Carolina, and at the time it appeared that first win over the Gamecocks (45-38) following Bud Dupree's interception returned for a touchdown would qualify as just that. But that South Carolina team didn't fare well for the year.

There have been a couple of big wins against Missouri in back-to-back seasons, both celebrated with fanfare and rounds of goodwill from the media and fans.

But nothing Stoops' teams have done on the field even approaches, not even in the slightest way, the win in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium last November. It is far and away the biggest accomplishment for Stoops in terms of real football outcomes.

It did several things besides create a little surge in positive publicity, although the headlines and praise came at both the local and national level. It made recruiting a lot easier. Kentucky's most action-packed and successful month of recruiting in Stoops' entire tenure was last December, probably not coincidentally just after that Louisville win.

The win probably directly led to Stoops' extension this week (it surely did, as the loss to Georgia Tech didn't). That 24-7 run that downed the Cardinals not only saved Stoops in the short- and intermediate term, and recruiting, but it served as an important leveling-out of the rivalry in-state, which had turned towards Louisville in recent years. How much does that really matter? A lot to the fans, and that counts, maybe less so to recruits but probably most of all it makes a coach breathe a little easier.

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1. Proving that a coach can recruit at a high level at Kentucky

By now it's barely even interesting to talk about the historic recruiting run that Kentucky's football program has been on in the four years that Mark Stoops has been in Lexington. It has been such a story line for those four years, so prominently mentioned especially on Cats Illustrated but everywhere else, that there's not much new to say about it.

But it has been that popular headline and conversation piece, and really still remains so, because it's historic.

When a program struggles for as long as Kentucky's football program has struggled, and when it reaches the depths that it has at various points, there are not only some real and daunting obstacles but, also, a kind of negative set of assumptions and lowered expectations can set in.

Almost everyone from national writers to probably more than a few college football coaches themselves would have told you, four years ago, that Kentucky was the second-least attractive job in the SEC (before expansion, ahead of only Vanderbilt). It's likely that the number one serious reason (which is to say that, "It'll always be a basketball program," is a less than serious reason) people said that was the perception that it was impossible to recruit great talent at Kentucky.

It's true that Kentucky has the smallest in-state pool of talent out of .any school in the SEC. But some years the state has enough to provide Kentucky with a high-end class nucleus, such as happened in the 2016 class. Recruiting in Ohio was smart strategy but only a great move because of Vince Marrow. That's the single-biggest reason for UK's unprecedented recruiting under Stoops and with Marrow locked down through 2020 there's no sign of it stopping.

Stoops' recruiting success has forever shattered the low-ceiling expectation for the program, or at least the part that's based on those old assumptions of classes ranked in the 50's and 60's nationally. That doesn't mean that future Kentucky coaches will duplicate that recruiting success, but it means they will be expected to do so. Tough for them, but fan expectations aren't a bad thing. They move the needle.

Stoops' recruiting success whipped a segment of the fan base and booster population into such a frenzy that it led to bigger contracts, extensions and facility renovations that have finally brought Kentucky football into the 21st century's college football arms race.

It appears Stoops will be around for a while. He's under contract through at least 2022. But even if he were gone tomorrow, this revolutionary recruiting success and all that comes with it, from heightened expectations to fewer negative perceptions about the program, will have made a profound difference on the program and on the perception of the job from the perspective of other would-be coaches.

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