By LARRY VAUGHT
He grew up a Kentucky fan and once he got a chance to play for the Wildcats, he rewrote the passing records and became a No. 1 overall NFL draft pick because of his offensive prowess.
Yet when former UK quarterback Tim Couch had a chance to be part of the selection process for Kentucky’s new football coach, he was all-in with Florida State defensive coordinator and was there Sunday to watch the press conference that actually was more of a pep rally when Stoops was officially introduced as the Cats’ new coach.
Couch didn’t know Stoops personally when Joker Phillips was fired with two games left in the season. However, because Couch is a college football analyst for FOX Sports, he talks to coaches and knew Stoops’ reputation for being one of college football’s top defensive minds — a claim backed up by the way the Seminoles ranked among the nation’s top defenses the last two years.
“I know one thing at Kentucky that we have always struggled with is stopping people in this conference. His name came to my mind initially when this job opened up and (UK athletics director) Mitch (Barnhart) was thinking the same thing and we continued the process and turns out he was a great fit for us,” said Couch Sunday.
Couch said the plan Stoops had to revive UK football after a 2-10 season that included an 0-8 mark in Southeastern Conference play and losses to Louisville and Western Kentucky sold him.
“Every question we had for Mark about what he wanted to do in recruiting, scheme-wise, everything like that. He had a tremendous plan for what he wanted to do and he had been waiting on this opportunity for a long time,” Couch said.
Stoops already knew that Couch was an iconic name in UK football.
“I understand the impact that Tim has on this university. Again, I want to lean on Tim and visit with him about some ideas because he’s been around football,” Stoops said.
That’s good because Couch will certainly have some ideas for UK’s offense. Give Stoops credit for quickly admitting Sunday that defense was his forte and he knows he needs a big-time offensive coordinator.
“I’m planning on going out and interviewing a few offensive coordinators here real soon. I’ve been in conversations. I feel real good about the prospects for the offensive coordinator. o I’m going to head out on the road and talk to a few people, put together the offensive staff first,” Stoops said. “I feel very good about the defensive staff. I feel like I have my defensive coordinator targeted, on board and ready to come. From there, it will really concentrate on the 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.”
Couch knows a program can make a major turnaround in one season because he was on a team that did. He came to UK in 1996 to play for Bill Curry and the Cats went 4-7 his freshman year when he barely played. The next year under new coach Hal Mumme, UK went 5-6 and then in 1998 the Cats finished 7-5 and played in the Outback Bowl.
“That is a conversation I had with Mitch. My freshman year we were the worst offense in the country and the next season we were the best. If not the best, one of the best in the country, with the same players, just a different system,” Couch said. “I am not saying that is going to happen here. It was a 2-10 football team in the toughest conference in America, but I am saying it can turn around.
“You get guys in the right system and put them in a position to make plays and get them in the right mismatches on the football field .. and that is what coaching is all about. There are already some talented young wide receivers on this program. There are talented young quarterbacks here in this program. I think it could turn quickly.”
One guy who might be able to direct that turnaround is former Boyle County star Neal Brown. He was a successful offensive coordinator at Troy before going to Texas Tech three years ago and he has continued to lead offenses that put up big numbers. Plus, he is Couch’s former teammate.
Could Brown be the right guy for Stoops?
“ I think Neal is a hot candidate at a lot of places. I think especially with him being a Kentucky guy … Neal was an old teammate of mine and has went on to do great things. He is one of the hottest young offensive coordinators in the country right now. I think he has the second-rated pass offense in the country at Texas Tech. He does a great job. If that is a route Mark wants to go, I would fully support that and I know everyone in Kentucky would as well,” Couch said.
Why not? It would seem like a perfect marriage. Tough-minded head coach with a defensive personality and recruiting ties in Ohio and Florida and younger offensive coordinator with a proven record with recruiting ties in Texas.
Could that be a combination to allow UK to reach a point where it could challenge for a SEC championship since both Stoops and Barnhart made it clear Sunday that was t he goal?
“You come into these things and you have a plan and he has been successful wherever he has been,” Couch said. “You look at what he did at Florida State. They were not a very good defense when he got there and now they are one of the tops in the country. He has a proven system that works and I think he thinks he can do that here.
“It’s the SEC, it’s Kentucky and there are a lot of things you can come in here and sell recruits on in my opinion. You sell recruits on playing in the SEC, the best conference in America. You sell Lexington. You sell this town. You sell early playing time. You sell all those things to kids and if you have an exciting offensive coordinator, you sell that to the skilled position guys. I think that is how you rebuild this thing and you do end up playing for championships.”