By KEITH TAYLOR, Winchester Sun
Mitch Barnhart knows it takes defense to compete in the Southeastern Conference. That’s why he hired a proven defensive coordinator to lead the football program at the University of Kentucky.
During a month-long search for a coach, Barnhart wanted a defensive-minded leader and turned to former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. Kentucky, which made five straight bowl appearance before going 7-17 during the past two seasons, not only started missing the postseason, but Barnhart noticed the Wildcats started “slipping” on the defensive side of the ball and wanted his next coach to shift the team’s focus back to defense and “how we could stop people.”
“We started to give up 25, 30 and 35 points a game and in this league and you’re not going to have success at the level you want if you can’t stop somebody,” he said following a press conference Sunday introducing Stoops as the team’s coach. “That was a focus for us.”
Clearly, Barnhart wanted a coach who understood and valued defense and determined it was Stoops who stood head and shoulders above the other candidates during the hiring process.
“I wanted us to be better defensively, so that we didn’t have to be so perfect on offense,” he said. “That was really, really important to us. That is where I started.”
From the beginning, Barnhart was prepared for the task at hand and had a “plan in place” after informing former coach Joker Phillips of his dismissal with three weeks remaining in the regular season. He made several contacts and settled on Stoops last week.
“We started to funnel through a bunch of names and you’ve got to be prepared,” he said. “I didn’t want to get to that day where we had to change, but when we did, we had to be ready. As the funnel got tighter, we got down (to it) and one name came out, and it was the one we offered the job to and it was Mark.”
Barnhart said Stoops was “spectacular” during the hiring process and “very organized.”
“He has a plan and his recruiting ties were very, very important,” he said. “You’ve got to have players and everybody knows that … and that recruiting piece is very important. I feel very strongly about the pedigree that Mark has through his family, the places that he’s been, the knowledge that he has gained, his toughness, the discipline that his team’s play with and the defensive piece was very, very important to us. All those components “wrapped” around the thought process that he has offensively gives us a chance to get better.”
In addition to Stoops, Barnhart said the other applicants had “good plans,” but was impressed with Stoops after he contacted Barnhart about the job and liked what Stoops had to offer.
“He and I texted back and forth a lot and there wasn’t a time where his energy didn’t come through, even in a text message,” he said. “That doesn’t win you a job, but it certainly doesn’t hurt you. We’ve had great communication and I’ve been very impressed with what he’s had to say. He’s been around (football) his entire life and he’s thinking about (football) all of his life. This is something he was been waiting for and working toward his entire career. He’s got and he’s ready to go turn it loose.”
Off the field, Barnhart was swayed by Stoops’ work ethic and his family’s desire to be in Lexington.
“I had an opportunity to meet with some members of his family and my brother works with Bob (Stoops) at Oklahoma and I know how much he thinks of coach Stoops at Oklahoma,” Barnhart said. “I love his family, they want to be here and that was important to us. He wants to develop young men from the inside out and he thinks he can build them to be really good people and really good football players. He has shown that and he’s a really good teacher of the game. I think that’s important.
“His work ethic is relentless and that’s what it is going to take for us to have an opportunity. That’s not to say that the people did not work hard. They worked hard and sometimes it just doesn’t work. We had to move on and do something differently. He gives us new hope, new energy, a new beginning and a chance to believe again.”
During his first search for a coach in 2002, Barnhart admitted that “it was hard” to find a replacement for Guy Morriss, but discovered a different tone outside the program this time around, a sign that the Kentucky job wasn’t a hard sell for Barnhart.
“We had some folks that came to us and said this was a good job,” Barnhart said.
Barnhart gave Stoops a five-year contract for $11 million plus incentives and gave Stoops and early stamp of a approval on a coaching staff, one that will be financial competitive with other salaries in the conference and the nation. He also added that the school is “financially in sound shape.” Barnhart added that Stoops “wanted to come” to Kentucky regardless of the school’s facilities and background.
“We’re working on those things,” Barnhart said of upgrading the school’s current facilities. “What’s so funny to me is people act like we’ve never done anything for football facilities. I find that ironic. One thing everybody wants to change is obviously Commonwealth Stadium and want to do some things to help with that as well, but when he walked through our Nutter Center, he said it was nice. He had no idea.
“He walked to our team rooms, our meeting rooms and our locker rooms, he said they were really nice. I think the perception out there is that we don’t have anything that is nice. That’s just not true. We’re working hard on that. The timing was not right in some of the other times, but we’re gaining ground on that and what the timing looks like on that, I don’t know. And like I said, sooner rather than later. That’s not an issue to Mark right now. What we’ve got, we can go to work with.”