By LARRY VAUGHT
This is such a perfect fit for Mark Stoops, Neal Brown and the University of Kentucky football program that it’s almost hard to believe it has all come together.
Brown, the former Boyle County standout, should be officially named Stoops’ offensive coordinator at Kentucky sometime today after finally saying yes to the lucrative offer that could possibly make him the highest paid coordinator in the Southeastern Conference.
As soon as former coach Joker Phillips was fired with two games still remaining, it seemed that Brown — a former UK walk-on receiver under Hal Mumme who finished his playing career at Massachusetts — could be the ideal offensive coordinator for the next coach. Once Stoops, the defensive coordinator at Florida State, was hired as the new coach, it was obvious Brown should be his choice based on what he has down with the Texas Tech offense.
“I realize with my background in defense that the offensive staff and the offensive coordinator will be critical to our success. That’s priority for me right now,” said Stoops at his introductory press conference. “We’re going to have an offense that you guys are going to enjoy. I promise you that. We’ll get out there and rip it around it a little bit, we are going to throw it.
“But you have to be creative. I’m a defensive guy. This is the SEC. It’s a physical conference. I realize that. I want to be tough and I want to be physical. We have to build this foundation with great defense. There’s no way around it. If you don’t play great defense, you’re not going to win consistently.
“But with the offense, again, I want somebody that has a plan, that’s been successful, and we have to be creative. We will have a physical presence about us, but we will spread it out and use some bells and whistles, get the run game going and, again, be a little bit creative.”
Brown can do that. He did at Troy when he got promoted from receivers coach to offensive coordinator when Tony Franklin — the man who hired Brown at Troy — left for Auburn. He certainly has at Texas Tech even though coach Tommy Tuberville, who left for Cincinnati Saturday, never was all-in with Brown’s offense. That’s why it didn’t really matter if Tuberville had stayed at Tech or not. Brown was ready for a change and got that opportunity from UK.
Brown’s Texas Tech offense averaged 501.4 yards per game last season and ranked in the top 12 in the nation in yards gained and points scored. Kentucky struggled mightily in both areas the last two years. In 2009, Troy ranked third nationally in total offense (485.6 yards per game) fourth in passing (336.5 yards) and 16th in scoring (33.69 points).
His work at Texas Tech was noticed by more than Stoops. He was interviewed for head coaching jobs at Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi. He likely could have got more interviews this week because of his reputation as one of the nation’s rising young offensive minds. At age 32, he’s already shown he can produce big numbers and wins.
Stoops’ brothers both believe in this offense. Bob Stoops hired Mike Leach — a Mumme disciple and coach at Texas Tech before Tuberville and Brown arrive. Mike Stoops hired Sonny Dykes — another Mumme disciple — as his offensive coordinator at Arizona when Mark Stoops was the defensive coordinator.
Once I learned former UK quarterback Tim Couch was a Stoops’ backer and also had the ear of UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart, Brown made even more sense. Brown and Couch were UK teammates and good friends. They’ve stayed in touch and Couch believes for Kentucky to win, it must be able to spread the field on offense and create mismatches that can negate superior talent like UK did when he played for Mumme and got the Cats to the Outback Bowl.
Stoops not only targeted Brown, but he encouraged him to pursue his head coaching opportunities last week and at the same time gave his blessing to the contract Brown wanted. Few new head coaches would be so patient, and Brown won’t forget that.
Still, Brown had one concern few will ever understand. He knows coming back to UK is a great move and gets him, his wife and two daughters back closer to family and friends. However, those family members and friends now will also be exposed to all the criticism that can be directed at a Division I coordinator. Brown worried what kind of emotional toll that would take on those closest to him.
However, when it came time to let Stoops know what he would do, the financial commitment from UK and a chance to come home and work under Stoops won out. Brown believes Stoops not only can win, but win big. Couch believe Stoops and Brown together certainly can win big.
Considering UK was 2-10 last year, it’s hard to imagine this much excitement over UK football. But athletics director Mitch Barnhart not only has hit a home run with Stoops and his staff, but he can laugh all the way to the bank as fans renew season tickets or new fans buy tickets.
Having Brown bring two more Cats — Chad cott and John Schlarman — back only adds to the buzz.
Schlarman is a Fort Thomas native and worked under Brown at Troy after spending one year at UK as a graduate assistant and four seasons as head coach at Campbell County and Newport high schools. He stayed at Troy when Brown went to Texas Tech but Schlarman, a all-SEC performer under Guy Morriss in 1997, will be coming back with Brown.
Scott played at UK from 2000-2002 and then transferred to North Carolina. He played briefly in the NFL and has coached under Brown at both Troy and Texas Tech. He’s consider a dynamite recruiter and works extremely well with Brown. This is also a big move for him because his wife, Shambrica Jones, is a former UK basketball player.
Brown obviously will coach the quarterbacks and apparently Stoops has added former Tennessee assistant Darin Henshaw, 40, to coach the receivers. That’s part of the youth movement Stoops hopes can revitalize UK football through coaching and recruiting.
No one, though, can be more thrilled to do his part to make UK football relevant than Brown. The Nelson County native bleeds blue. Always has. Always will. Now he can have a big part in reshaping Kentucky’s football future and helping Stoops fulfill his promise that UK can not only win, but win big.