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By LARRY VAUGHT
Mark Stoops certainly seems to bring a lot of things to the University of Kentucky football program that the Wildcats desperately need.
He’s relatively young at age 45. He has recruiting connections in Florida, one of the nation’s most productive states when it comes to producing Division I talent. He’s a proven defensive mind as Florida State’s defense has gone from 108th in the country in 2009 before he arrived to second in the nation in total defense at 249.4 yards per game going into Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. The Seminoles are fourth in the country in both rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.
He’s also known for his passion for the game and his ability to communicate and connect with others, something that will be needed to help win back the Kentucky fan base that bailed not only on coach Joker Phillips and his players during a 2-10 season but also on the UK administration for its perceived lack of support for the football program.
If Stoops is not a home run hire, he’s close. Especially for Kentucky. UK has become the worst team in the SEC and faces an even more difficult schedule next year. Several coaches initially approached about the job said thanks but no thanks. However, former UK quarterback Tim Couch touted Stoops from the beginning to UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart and the UK AD wisely listened to Couch.
Now I hope he might do the same and listen to those who are wanting former Boyle County High School standout Neal Brown to be UK’s next offensive coordinator. He’s currently in his third season at Texas Tech as offensive coordinator and once again has a productive, high-powered offense. The Red Raiders average 501 yards and 37.8 points per game and rank among the nation’s top 15 offenses.
That’s no surprise since Texas Tech was 13th nationally in total offense in 2011 with 470.5 yards per game and 22nd in scoring offense at 33.8 points per game. In his first year at Texas Tech under coach Tommy Tuberville in 2010, Texas Tech put up 460 yards and 33 points per game.
Brown has a lot of selling points that would seem to fit perfectly with Stoops. He’s young, 32, but was offensive coordinator at Troy for two years when that team won two conference titles and played in two bowl games before he went to Texas Tech. He has also worked at Delaware, Sacred Heart and Massachusetts, so he has paid his coaching dues and every move has been a step up — just like the moves Stoops has made in his career.
He is a relentless recruiter and now has solid recruiting ties in Texas to go along with those he developed in the south while working at Troy. Combine Stoops’ Florida ties with Brown’s Texas connections and UK would have strong ties to two states rich with high school talent.
Kentucky reached out to Brown’s agent two weeks ago. While I don’t know what the conversation was about, maybe it was laying the groundwork for UK possibly hiring a defensive-minded coach who would need a young, rising offensive coordinator. I also know that Couch is Brown’s former teammate and the two have remained friends, something that could play a role in luring Brown to Kentucky.
Obviously, getting a chance to return to the school where he played three years and be back closer to family would be a huge plus for him and his wife. Also moving to the Southeastern Conference would seem to be another step forward in his career.
The dangers? What if UK didn’t win? What if he didn’t click with Stoops?
Those are risks, but every coach faces risk. Ask any of the UK assistant coaches now looking for a job. Ask Tee Martin, who left UK after the 2011 season for USC where he thought he could be part of a national championship and build his resume only to see that team fizzle. There are no guarantees.
Brown’s salary at Texas Tech was larger than what offensive coordinator Randy Sanders made at Kentucky. But that problem could be solved and I would expect Barnhart not to let that be a stumbling block if the Cats wanted Brown.
What would be more important for Brown would be to know Stoops would buy in 100 percent to his style of offense and that he could determine what coaches he wanted on his staff. He likely would want someone like Texas Tech running backs coach Chad Scott, a former UK player. Maybe offensive line coach John Schlarman of Troy, another former Wildcat. Perhaps someone like Craig Yeast, a former UK star who just finished his first year at Tiffin University.
If Stoops is as good a coach as I think he is, he’ll know the importance of letting his offensive coordinator pick his staff because that’s what he wanted on his defense and what he’ll likely want to help his defensive coordinator do.
But think about the energy and passion Stoops, Brown and a group of younger coaches could bring to the UK football program. I think the Stoops-Brown combination would give Barnhart his home run hire and ignite the UK fan base again. The Big Blue supporters would be ready to come back to Commonwealth Stadium.
Will it happen? I don’t know. Could it happen? Certainly. Should it happen? I’m biased because I have known Brown for almost 20 years, but I think it should. Stoops could possibly have another coordinator in mind, but he’ll have a hard time finding one that has been more productive or would be more enthused about being at Kentucky than Brown would be.