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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Long before the Kentucky Wildcats marched into the top 10 of college football’s rankings, coach Mark Stoops had a good feeling about his team in 2022.
On a Wednesday in mid-August — the epicenter of the training camp grind, when boredom and complacency can collide — Kentucky completed another productive practice.
Stoops sensed he had another good team, but he knew he had a strong, stable program after nearly a decade at UK.
“I mean, it’s downright enjoyable,” Stoops said. “In the middle of camp, in the middle of summer, sometimes it gets old. Sparks fly and guys want to play somebody different. But our guys are genuinely fun to coach. It’s a great environment.”
Stoops had moved on from the stir caused several days earlier by Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who told reporters during a preseason trip to the Bahamas that UK “is a basketball school,” while branding SEC competitors Alabama and Georgia as “football schools.” Stoops defended his program on Twitter and then with reporters, saying he stays in his lane and oversees a program that “wasn’t born on third base.”
“I embrace it and love it, the history of our basketball,” he added. “I didn’t have that history. We’re creating it.”
Kentucky will always be known first for its basketball tradition, but Stoops has built UK football into a respected, relevant program in the nation’s toughest conference. He has led Kentucky to bowl games in each of the past six seasons and AP top-20 finishes in 2018 and 2021. Kentucky enters this week’s game at No. 14 Ole Miss (noon ET, ESPN) with its highest AP ranking (7) since finishing the 1977 season No. 6, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
After helping Kentucky end its 31-game losing streak to Florida in 2018, Stoops on Sept. 10 passed Bear Bryant as the program’s all-time winningest coach after a win over the Gators. The longest-tenured coach in Kentucky history is 51-29 since the start of the 2016 season.
“There’s respect at the college level, the high school level and the pro level for what we’ve done and what we continue to do,” Stoops said. “For me as a coach, that’s what you’re aiming for.”
Here’s a closer look at the steps Kentucky took to create its rise in football, and what five other programs more known for basketball — Arizona, Duke, Illinois, Indiana and Kansas — can learn as they approach the same mission.
Step 1: Patience and continuity
Following a tight win against Northern Illinois, Mark Stoops details the areas of improvement necessary for No. 8 Kentucky before resuming conference play.
In December 2012, Vince Marrow was a graduate assistant at Nebraska, preparing for the Big Ten championship game the following day. Bo Pelini, the Huskers’ coach, had received a call about Marrow from Stoops, their mutual friend and high school teammate from Youngstown, Ohio. Stoops, hired days earlier at Kentucky, was interested in Marrow joining his staff.
Marrow told Pelini they could discuss his situation after the game, but Pelini didn’t see a need to wait.
“I said, ‘What do you think?'” Marrow recalled asking Pelini. “And he goes, ‘I don’t know, you’re going to get your ass kicked, y’all probably will be fired in three years.’ Because that was the tradition of this job.”
Kentucky had a run of bowl appearances from 2006 to 2010 under Rich Brooks, but only one .500 season in SEC play since 1999. The team had last posted a winning conference record in 1977. Three of the previous four UK coaches had lasted less than five seasons. The program had bottomed out under Joker Phillips in 2012, going 2-10 and winless in the SEC.
“How many people do you know that come into the SEC that are six feet below ground?” Stoops said. “Out of 14 schools, we were six feet below that. At that time, with no transfer portal, with no immediate eligibility, if you fixed it in a year or two, they’re probably going to investigate you.”
The first keys to Kentucky’s turnaround were patience and a commitment to continuity. Stoops had the exact same record in his first year (2-10, 0-8 SEC) as Phillips did in his final season, and then had identical records (5-7, 2-6 SEC) in Years 2 and 3.
“I never gave anybody a reason to fire me,” Stoops said defiantly. “We were clearly getting better, things were positive. We just had a long way to go. What happens is people tell you on the front end, ‘It’s going to take some time,’ but when that happens, two years feels like a long time, three years feels like an eternity. Then, your margin for error’s like an inch, and if you lose to the one team you’re not supposed to, it kind of blows up in your face.
“You have to be able to withstand that.”
Stoops had been in a similar situation before, albeit not as a head coach. He was defensive coordinator at Arizona under his older brother, Mike. Like Kentucky, Arizona is more steeped in basketball tradition. Mike took over a program coming off four consecutive losing seasons and gradually built it into a consistent bowl team.
Mark Stoops felt supported by longtime Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart and others around the program, even in those difficult early years. He never reached a point where he thought Kentucky couldn’t be flipped, even if the results weren’t tangible. But the wait took a toll.
“You think back to those times and it’s brutal,” Stoops said. “This isn’t just a job. Your lifestyle has changed, and you pay for it in certain ways. It’s never ending, there’s always something to do, ways you need to improve, whether it’s fundraising or people or relationships with donors and boosters, the things you need done for the staff and the team.”
Marrow saw those years wear on Stoops. There were numerous gaps to fill around the program, from facilities to support staff to recruiting to the food served. Marrow likened Stoops to a new business owner, trying to do everything on his own before allowing himself to delegate.
Kentucky’s leadership helped. Barnhart is the second-longest-tenured AD at a Power 5 program (2002), while university president Eli Capilouto has been in his role since 2011.
“We would not be where we are if it weren’t for the patience of our administration,” Marrow said. “We’ve been here 10 years, and Florida’s had three or four coaches, South Carolina had three, Tennessee had a bunch. I don’t see a lot of administrations like [Kentucky’s]. They actually gave Mark time to build and change this culture.”
Added Stoops: “The same president, same AD and same head football coach, that’s special to me.”
The continuity also works both ways. Stoops’ name has been mentioned for other jobs, but he has remained at UK. Several Big Ten schools have come after Marrow, but he has stayed and been rewarded with a seven-figure salary and the title of associate head coach.
Last year, defensive coordinator Brad White turned down an offer from LSU to stay with Stoops.
“Part of your pitch when you’re talking to a young man is, ‘Listen, if we’re going to ask you to bypass looking at logos, we need to do the same,'” White said. “It’s got to be about, where are your core values? Where are you anchored? It’s good for continuity. It allows the players to have something to grasp on to and then take ownership.”
Step 2: A clearly defined recruiting strategy
Kentucky built its roster through an approach that seems obvious, given where the school is located, but one that hadn’t been adopted by previous coaches. Stoops and Marrow turned to their home state of Ohio, and went all in.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Marrow said, “Ohio saved our jobs.”
Kentucky’s 2012 roster featured only six players from Ohio, mostly special teamers. The 2013 class, which Stoops essentially inherited, included only two Ohio players. Stoops’ first full class, in 2014, featured 11 players from Ohio, including two ESPN 300 prospects.
Of the 25 players Kentucky signed in 2016, more than half (13) were from Ohio, including running back Benny Snell, who would go on to become the school’s all-time leading rusher. Four of Kentucky’s six highest-rated prospects (by ESPN) in the 2017 class came from Ohio, while a three-star prospect from Youngstown, Lynn Bowden Jr., would go on to become one of the more versatile and explosive players in team history.
Stoops and Marrow knew Ohio was one of the top producing states for both FBS players and NFL players. As they drew a recruiting radius with drive times, just like every staff does, Kentucky could reach Youngstown, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and other Ohio hot spots for prospects within five hours.
“Ohio was sitting right there,” Marrow said. “Why not go recruit it? I knew that the Stoops name, the Marrow name in Ohio, we could do some serious damage.”
While at Nebraska, Marrow had seen Big Ten teams beat SEC opponents with rosters heavy on Ohio players. He and Stoops saw the Ohio push as a way to stand out.
“People started giving Mark credit as being one of the toughest teams because we had a Big Ten, Midwest mentality, taking it into the SEC,” Marrow said. “That’s how we were able to grind out games, run the ball down your throat and all that, because we had a lot of Big Ten players now buying into, ‘Let’s go to the closest SEC school, Kentucky, go play in the South and see how we measure up.’
“Since then, we’ve won so many games that we can expand nationally, but our home is still going to be Kentucky and Ohio.”
Step 3: Embracing development
When Stoops took the job, he could only dream about a recruiting class like the one Kentucky finalized last winter. Ranked No. 15 nationally by ESPN, Kentucky signed six ESPN 300 prospects and three others with an ESPN four-star rating. The Wildcats landed the No. 2 player in Indiana (offensive tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin), three of the top nine recruits in Tennessee (wide receiver Barion Brown, linebacker Keaten Wade and athlete Destin Wade) and the top-rated in-state prospect in wide receiver Dane Key.
The team’s on-field success has raised its recruiting ceiling and appeal for transfers, such as starting quarterback Will Levis, a Penn State import who is No. 20 in ESPN’s NFL draft rankings for 2023. Those increases are necessary to compete in the SEC.
But player development, a term some coaches and programs try to repel, remains at the forefront for Kentucky.
“We’re all looking for that no-brainer athlete, that no-brainer talent, but we’re still a developmental sport,” Stoops said. “We have to understand that they’re not always going to be that way. They’re not going to walk in and all be on the same level, at least not here. We have to do our job and develop them, and we’ve done a nice job at that over the years.
“I take pride in that. You have to in football.”
He and his staff have looked for players with the same mentality. First-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who spent the previous five seasons in the NFL, told ESPN that “players almost feel NFL here.”
“It’s their approach toward wanting to get better,” Scangarello said. “They show up on time, they take notes, they love to watch film, guys stay late at night on their own. We don’t dog-cuss our players, we don’t get after ’em in a negative way. We try to be positive and teach. They respond to that because they have the right makeup.”
Linebacker DeAndre Square was a three-star recruit out of Detroit’s Cass Tech High School who had a solid mix of scholarship offers. He didn’t want to pick an established program, though, preferring to forge his own path.
At Kentucky, Square has been a four-year starter and two-time captain, recording 265 tackles (19.5 for loss).
“I didn’t want to be another four-star guy who goes to Ohio State and becomes forgotten,” Square said. “I want to work for everything. I want to do something that lasts. I feel like I was an underdog. I was 190 pounds coming out of high school, and nobody really thought I could play linebacker in the SEC. The University of Kentucky and I had the same mindset. It was perfect.”
Levis also was a three-star prospect, but he first chose a more established program in Penn State. At Kentucky, he saw a chance to start at quarterback, but also a coach-player relationship built on direct communication and evaluation.
“Regardless if you’re senior or freshman, they’re going to tell you how it is and they’re going to tell you why you’re not getting the reps, and what you can do better,” Levis said. “If coaches are like that, and keeping rankings or politics out of it, that’s the only way you can truly recruit and develop players, which is a phrase that our program and Coach Stoops have leaned on since they’ve gotten here.
“Recruit and develop.”
Step 4: Ambition
Wildcats football coach Mark Stoops takes exception to remarks by John Calipari that Kentucky is a basketball school.
Kentucky’s journey from “six feet under” to a head above many SEC programs resonates with Stoops, Marrow and even those who weren’t there at the start. But the quest to create history doesn’t end with consistent bowl trips or spots in the polls.
“I’m the type of guy, and Mark’s the same, we won’t be satisfied until we get to Atlanta,” Marrow said.
Kentucky has never reached Atlanta, home of the SEC championship game. Since the event launched in 1992, the Wildcats haven’t really been close. They have never lost fewer than three games in conference play and have finished in second place just twice.
An Atlanta trip this year likely would mean beating Georgia, the defending national champion and clear-cut No. 1 team. Tennessee also has become more formidable under coach Josh Heupel. But the Wildcats have been building toward a breakthrough, and Atlanta is the logical next stop.
“I don’t think it means anything unless we win it,” Levis said. “We would get there, but there’s always a bigger goal. It’s something that hasn’t happened here, and the fans would be pretty excited about it.”
Kentucky football has off-field ambitions, too. The context around Calipari’s “basketball school” comments was that he wants a new facility for practices and other support areas for his program, a Taj Mahal of sorts in the center of Kentucky’s campus.
UK’s football facilities have improved significantly during Stoops’ tenure, but he continued to push for upgrades, including a renovated indoor practice field approved in February. He understands he can’t get everything and remains grateful for what the school has provided. But the campaign never stops.
“What SEC head football coach doesn’t want more? More wins, more guys, more of a budget,” Stoops said. “This league is extremely competitive at every level, whether it’s budgets, facilities, recruiting, games. That’s what drives us, that’s why we’re in this league. You can get passed in a real hurry if you’re not constantly grinding and striving to get better.”
Here’s a look at five other schools known more for basketball, and how their blueprint for football success is progressing. ESPN polled several industry insiders to rank the jobs — Arizona, Duke, Illinois, Indiana and Kansas — and provide feedback.
Record since 2012: 55-68
Program peak: From 1986 to 1998, Arizona had four AP Top 25 finishes, including a No. 4 under coach Dick Tomey in 1998. Tomey’s “Desert Swarm” defense propelled Arizona to 10 wins and a Fiesta Bowl championship in 1993. The Wildcats had only two losing seasons during the stretch.
Biggest obstacles: Apathy and infrastructure. I covered a game at Arizona in November 2019, and it was one of the worst environments I had seen in the Power 5. The Wildcats were bad and their opponent (Utah) was good, but nothing about the setting projected big-time college football. Arizona fans are rabid about basketball. The McKale Center has long been one of the best environments in college hoops. But lagging interest in football, combined with limited resources compared to other Pac-12 schools, left the program in a difficult spot before coach Jedd Fisch took over.
Job rank and feedback: Industry insiders don’t see Arizona as the worst among the other basketball schools, but not the best, either. “They’ve at least been good before,” one source said. Arizona has some locational advantages over the others. “There’s talent in Arizona,” an industry insider said. “You can get into California. There’s a lot of quarterbacks coming from Arizona, the Phoenix area is really growing. They struggle financially, but [Rich Rodriguez] won some games there.” Another person noted that Arizona coaches will have better job security and lower expectations to meet than those at in-state rival Arizona State. One source ranked Arizona as the best of the five, noting that a Pac-12 without USC and UCLA “opens up a lot of doors.”
Current snapshot: Fisch wasn’t an overly celebrated hire. He had been more of a journeyman — seven NFL teams and four college teams since 2002 — than anything else. But he targeted Arizona with a smart plan to reconnect with alumni, generate enthusiasm around campus and Tucson, and ultimately make the program appealing to recruits and transfers. Arizona has rapidly improved its recruiting operation, and signed a 2022 class with four ESPN 300 prospects. The team landed Washington State quarterback transfer Jayden de Laura and has a 2023 commitment from ESPN 300 quarterback Brayden Dorman. Still, Fisch is just 2-12 against FBS opponents.
Record since 2012: 65-65
Program peak: The best stretch came from 1936 to 1945, when Duke twice reached the Rose Bowl under coach Wallace Wade, and had two AP top-three finishes (1938 and 1941) and four AP top-eight finishes in six seasons. Duke lost more than two games just twice over the span.
Biggest obstacles: ACC success and interest in football. Duke has struggled mightily in league play, even during the mostly successful David Cutcliffe era (2008-2021). Cutcliffe had only two winning seasons in the ACC and another at 4-4. Since 1979, Duke has finished with one or zero wins in ACC play 22 times, including three stretches where the team went multiple seasons without a single conference victory. In a league that includes several other basketball-centric schools, Duke’s futility has stuck out. Duke has a smaller recruiting pool than many of its peers, and lacks glitz with its gameday environment and facilities.
Job rank and feedback: Most industry insiders polled listed Duke as the worst of the remaining basketball schools. A combination of high academic standards, which reduce the recruiting pool, a small fan base and poor facilities puts Duke at the bottom. “The stadium sucks,” one person said. “And it’s such a small fan base.” Another source noted that Duke has more advantages with its location — North Carolina is a fertile state for recruits — than similar schools. “As long as the staff is willing to work with you to get kids in, it’s actually better than people think it is,” the source said. “And no pressure there.”
Current snapshot: Cutcliffe did so many good things at Duke and brought the right tone to the program, but things really fell off in his final two seasons, as the Blue Devils won only one ACC game. The early returns on his replacement, Mike Elko, are promising, as Duke is off to a 3-1 start. Elko was a smart hire who played football at an elite academic school (Penn) and came up under Dave Clawson at multiple stops, including Wake Forest, before coordinator stints at Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Ideally, Elko can replicate the success Clawson has at Wake Forest, which faced similar challenges to Duke but has become a consistent ACC program.
Record since 2012: 42-80
Program peak: The Illini reached New Year’s Six Bowls in 2001 and 2007, but the program’s best runs came in the 1910s under coach Bob Zuppke, who had consecutive undefeated seasons in 1914 and 1915, and then from 1950 to 1953, when the Illini had three AP top-15 finishes.
Biggest obstacles: Inconsistent play and a lukewarm commitment to football. Illinois actually has decent tradition in football but virtually no consistency on the field in the past 20 years. Since a 10-win season and a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001, the Illini have had back-to-back bowl appearances just once (2010, 2011). Facilities and overall program infrastructure also lagged until recently, and several uninspiring coaching hires conditioned fans to quickly shift their focus toward basketball early in the fall.
Job rank and feedback: Illinois is viewed by several industry sources as the best of the remaining basketball schools, namely because of its recent facilities upgrade and a history that features several breakthrough seasons. “Of those schools, they have done the most significant facility project,” one person said. Another source noted that Illinois’ access to the Chicago recruiting market is a distinct advantage. Illinois also is viewed as having the right alignment to finally create consistency in football. The expanded Big Ten with the likely elimination of divisions could work against Illinois, which plays in the easier West Division.
Current snapshot: Illinois is finally positioned well for some steadiness in football. The school has a football-focused athletic director in Josh Whitman and a coach in Bret Bielema who understands the Big Ten landscape and how to win. Whitman is a strong fundraiser who has engineered improvements and will continue to focus on upgrades. Bielema recorded several signature wins in Year 1 and has Illinois at 3-1 this season. He has assembled a strong staff, including rising-star defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, and embraces the player development piece and the recruiting strategy needed to at least get Illinois into bowl games consistently.
Record since 2012: 54-69
Program peak: The Hoosiers last won the Big Ten in 1967, reaching their only Rose Bowl, but they had their most consistent run from the mid 1980s to early 1990s under coach Bill Mallory. IU reached six of its 13 bowl games between 1986 and 1993, finishing 8-3 and No. 20 in 1988. The team was ranked at some point in all but two seasons between 1987 and 1994.
Biggest obstacles: Apathy and misfortune. Indiana has a great tailgating scene for football, but translating the same enthusiasm to the stadium for games has been challenging over the years. The state has unparalleled basketball tradition, both at the high school and college level, but lacks the recruiting base or overall interest in football that many other parts of the Big Ten enjoy. Indiana endured a really tough decade after Mallory’s tenure, but seemingly had found a transformational coach in Terry Hoeppner. But Hoeppner was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in 2007. IU made only one bowl game between 1993 and 2015.
Job rank and feedback: Industry insiders consistently ranked Indiana fourth out of the five schools. The program’s facility upgrades have helped, but still lag behind most Big Ten schools. “Are they great? No. But they’re manageable,” a source said. “At least you have somewhere to bring recruits.” Indiana hasn’t been willing to significantly upgrade its spending on football, a source said. Indiana isn’t in a great state for football recruiting. “Indiana high school football has become better than Kansas high school football, so there’s more talent around there,” one source said. “So it’s probably a little bit easier, but not considerably better.” Another source ranked Indiana last because of the difficulty to win in an expanded Big Ten that includes USC and UCLA.
Current snapshot: Indiana is in the middle of a very solid stretch, relative to its history. Since 2016, the Hoosiers have had only one truly bad season (2-10 last fall) and have made strides in recruiting and other areas under coaches Kevin Wilson and Tom Allen. IU has made bowl games in four of the past seven seasons and already has eclipsed last year’s win total with a 3-1 start this fall. Allen is an Indiana native and a former high school coach who knows the state and its ingredients (good and bad) as well as anyone. He has established a nice recruiting pipeline to Florida, where he used to coach, and has also been active in the transfer portal.
Record since 2012: 22-99
Program peak: Kansas has had successful stretches, usually followed by nosedives. From 1946 to 1952, the team made the Orange Bowl and avoided a losing season. Coaches Jack Mitchell, Pepper Rodgers and Don Fambrough all had AP top-20 finishes, and Glen Mason guided Kansas to a No. 9 finish in 1995 and four winning seasons over five years from 1991 to 1995. But the peak might have come under Mark Mangino, who took Kansas to four bowl games between 2003 and 2008, including an Orange Bowl and a No. 7 finish in 2007.
Biggest obstacles: Post-Mangino mismanagement. If you look up the steps on how to destroy a program after a good stretch, Kansas ticked all the boxes after Mangino’s exit in December 2009. The school made four coaching hires over the next decade, none of them successful and some (Charlie Weis) especially damaging to the roster and chances for future success. There were scholarship problems and the David Beaty lawsuit and the Les Miles mess. Kansas delivered a masterclass on how not to lead, while the program continued to struggle to keep pace in key resource areas.
Job rank and feedback: Kansas had the most variance among industry sources, as it ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 5. The biggest concerns are around poor facilities, a limited local recruiting base and, the past few weeks notwithstanding, limited fan and alumni interest. “No tradition outside of , no talent, nobody cares,” an industry source said. Another person noted that the talent base isn’t awful but added, “The facilities and stadium are terrible. That’s their next step.” Kansas also has to commit more money to coaches’ salaries and other infrastructure elements. Another potential plus for Kansas is a Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma, especially if the program can sustain its current momentum. “If Kansas has its act together, they can challenge the middle half of the conference,” a source said.
Current snapshot: At last, there’s genuine hope in Lawrence. Kansas did a clean sweep in the wake of the Miles allegations, which led to the hiring of a new athletic director in Travis Goff, who then wisely hired Lance Leipold to lead the program. Leipold, who has won throughout his career, has ended many of Kansas’ embarrassing losing streaks and has amazingly positioned the program as a dark-horse candidate in the Big 12 this year. The Jayhawks are 4-0 for the first time since 2009. Goff, a gifted fundraiser, is spearheading overdue facilities upgrades and has brought a more genuine commitment to football. Leipold might be tough for KU to retain, but he has finally given the program an identity and the ingredients to find stability.