Coordinators Crucial for Stoops’ Success
By Matt Smith
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Rockstar hires are hard to come by at a place like Kentucky. Like you have to develop talent there, you have to develop coaches as well.
The first of the SEC’s four coaching vacancies was filled on Tuesday when Kentucky hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to replace Joker Phillips, who was fired on Nov. 11 after a 1-9 start.
Stoops, 45, has spent the past three seasons in charge of the Seminoles defense after a six-year stint as defensive coordinator at Arizona under his brother, Mike. Stoops becomes the third member of his family to be an FBS head coach, joining Mike and eldest brother Bob, who is in his 14th year as the head coach at Oklahoma. Stoops won a national championship as defensive backs coach at Miami (FL) in 2001.
Phillips, a former receiver for the Wildcats and a longtime assistant under Rich Brooks prior to being named head coach-in-waiting in 2008, was loved by his players and considered to be one of the “nice guys” in coaching. However, he lacked the flair that a program such as Kentucky needs to compete with the SEC heavyweights given the school’s basketball-first culture and lack of a fertile recruiting base.
Stoops is a mix between the relatively stoic Bob and the hyperactive Mike. He rarely loses his composure like Mike, but does bring some fire to a team that far too often appeared to just be going through the motions under Phillips.
Rich Brooks proved in the late 2000s that Kentucky can be a competitive SEC program, winning at least seven games for four straight seasons. Since his departure after the 2009 season, the Wildcats have won just four of 24 SEC games. Brooks had Kentucky ranked in the Top 10. Brooks got ESPN’s College Gameday to Lexington. Brooks won in such venues as Sanford Stadium, Jordan-Hare Stadium and Razorback Stadium. Getting to SEC Championship Games might be unrealistic, but going to bowls in, say, three out of every four years is more than reasonable.
Based on the numbers his defenses have accumulated, it’s hard to think Stoops won’t be able to turn the downtrodden Wildcats around. He took over a 109th-ranked defense at Arizona in 2004 and steadily grew them into a unit which finished in the top 50 in total defense in three of his final four seasons. At Florida State, it took Stoops just two years to take the Seminoles defense from 108th nationally to fourth. The 2012 ‘Noles are currently No. 2 nationally.
The question now, as is the case in the days after a coaching hire, is who Stoops can get to join him in Lexington. What type of system he runs will be critical in how quickly he can resurrect Kentucky. The system itself is less important than giving the offense an identity, something it lacked under Phillips and Randy Sanders.
Stoops would love to bring current Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley with him. It would seem like a step down going to Kentucky, but Coley doesn’t call plays for the Seminoles. If Stoops prefers more of a wide-open style, he could look at East Carolina’s Lincoln Riley. A former Mike Leach protégé, Riley is just 28 years old, and has been the Pirates offensive coordinator for the past three seasons. The East Carolina passing offense ranks in the top 40 nationally. With the success of Texas A&M (and fellow young offensive coordinator/Leach disciple Kliff Kingsbury) this season, it’s been proven that wide-open offenses can be effective against some of the nation’s toughest defenses.
Should Stoops want to stick to a pro-style attack, former Kent State head coach Doug Martin is available after a one-year stint as Boston College’s offensive coordinator. Martin injected some life into an Eagles offense that was one of the worst in the country in 2011.
Again, it’s not the system itself, but it’s committing to one system and recruiting for it that will expedite the team’s improvement. Kentucky did a little of this and a little of that offensively the past few seasons, and never became comfortable doing any one thing well.
Defensively, a name to watch would be Oklahoma linebackers coach Tim Kish, who worked with Stoops at Arizona and served as the team’s interim head coach in 2011 after Mike Stoops was fired at midseason. The defensive hire, of course, is not as critical given that Stoops’ background is strictly defense.
All in all, Kentucky made a very solid hire. There will be a grace period, but with James Franklin, the last ACC coordinator to be hired as an SEC head coach, taking Vanderbilt from two wins to eight in only two seasons, a model has been established for Stoops to follow. Rockstar hires are hard to come by at a place like Kentucky. Like you have to develop talent there, you have to develop coaches as well.
Now comes the tough part – making the right coordinator hires. Missing on coordinator hires is what has Gene Chizik unemployed, and landing Todd Grantham to run Georgia’s defense is what may have saved Mark Richt’s job. Coaching football is as much of a team effort as playing it is. Who joins Stoops’ team will go a long way to determining if and when Kentucky becomes a contending program again.