By KEITH PEEL
After watching the annual Blue-White scrimmage to end spring practice for 2017 I came away impressed with the level of talent improvement from this year’s team compared to 2012 when Mark Stoops first arrived at Kentucky. You could see SEC level talent at all positions with obvious improvement in team speed and strength.
That has not always been the case. In years past UK always seemed to be on the “short end of the stick” when it came to recruiting football talent. Other schools seemed to be able to hire better coaches and attract better players.
That all seemed to change starting in 2012. Let’s travel back in time to November 27, 2012. Mitch Barnhart announced that Mark Stoops would be the new Head Coach of the University of Kentucky football team. During that same year in December Arkansas hired Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema to take the same position at their school and the Tennessee Volunteers announced that Butch Jones, the then current Cincinnati Head Coach, would be the man to lead their program into the future.
Most UK fans (me included) groaned ” here we go again. Others school’s get the elite coaches and we have to settle for what we can get. A coach with no experience”.
As most of you know when Mark Stoops was hired in 2012 he inherited a bare cupboard. Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema did not. Both coaches had head coaching experience at larger schools. Mark Stoops did not.
Since that time none of the three coaches have had outstanding records over their 4 year coaching careers at their respective schools. Stoops is 19-30 at UK going 7-6 last year and appearing in the Taxslayer Bowl. Jones of Tennessee is 30-21 overall and finished 9-4 overall last year and appeared in the Music City Bowl. Both teams tied for 2nd place in the Eastern Division of the SEC. Bret Bielema is 25-26 over his four year period at Arkansas and finished 7-6 overall last year. His team appeared in the Belk Bowl and finished tied for fifth in the Western Division of the SEC.
Since none of the coaches are “hitting the ball out of the park” it may appear that none of the three schools made very effective hires but I think there are two differences for UK, compared to the other two schools, that bode well for Mark Stoops and UK. One is that Stoops came into the UK job with no prior head coaching experience. Knowing that and the fact that he had very little SEC level talent on his roster should easily explain why his first few years at UK were not exceptional.
Not so for Jones at UT or even Bielema at Arkansas. They both are at perennial football powerhouse schools that have a long history of producing championship level teams. Both schools have historically recruited at a very high level. Since recruiting talented players plays a huge role in the success of any college football program it is interesting to see what type talent they had recruited compared to Stoops.
When looking at overall rankings for recruiting classes UT had the 20th ranked class in 2012, 24th ranked class in 2013, 7th class in 2014 and 4th ranked class in 2015. Arkansas recruiting ranked 28th in 2012, 23rd in 2013, 29th in 2014 and 23rd in 2015. UK, by contrast, had the 50th ranked class in 2012, 34th class in 2013, 22nd in 2014 and 38th in 2015.
Those numbers alone tell me that, one, Mark Stoops is recruiting at a high level nationally compared to UK programs of the past and more importantly, two, that he is better at identifying and developing talent than either Jones or Bielema (based on rankings vs. won-loss record) and is using that talent to incrementally move the program forward. Even though Jones and Bielema have higher ranked recruiting classes year over year it doesn’t appear that those classes are translating into a much higher number of wins on the field.
Since Mark Stoops teams seem to be on an upward trajectory based on last year’s 2nd place finish in the SEC East and the potential for additional improvement this year and for years to come it appears that the astute hire back in 2012 might have been the inexperienced assistant coach from Florida State and not the head coach of Wisconsin or Cincinnati.