Kentucky is 7-1, alive in the Playoff race and can lock up the SEC East with an upset of No. 6 Georgia on Saturday. Along with Northwestern, Washington State, and Virginia, they’re among the weirdo darlings of this season’s conference title races.
Except that unlike those programs, Kentucky and head coach Mark Stoops got here really slowly, and in the SEC that usually gets you fired.
That and the style of football they’re playing — a really good defense (third in Defensive S&P+) spelling a great offensive line and run game — has made them a topic of conversation among coaches and athletic directors.
Mark Stoops’ plan to build the Wildcats into a contender took six seasons, the first three with finishes under .500 (2-10 in a 2013 debut). That’s a lifetime of patience in modern college football and an eternity in the SEC.
“I’m not sure you could last anywhere else in the league with that kind of track record, except Vanderbilt,” an SEC assistant coach told SB Nation.
“But it was the right move all the way. That’s what’s interesting. Will it get other programs to reevaluate firing guys after three years? Maybe not. But if they beat Georgia and go to Atlanta, it’s a hell of an argument for letting coaches build out a roster over a long period.”
The Wildcats enter November just one win away from their eighth of the year, which would exceed the regular season win total of any UK team since 1984.
If you hadn’t noticed Kentucky until this season, no one can blame you.
Since Stoops replaced Joker Phillips after the program bottomed out in 2012, they’ve been respectable enough to avoid the ignominy of a Kansas or Rutgers but never good enough (especially in November) to warrant attention.
Entering 2018, Stoops was 26-36 and 12-28 in SEC play. If there was any noticeable identity, it was that UK started strong, couldn’t beat Florida, and collapsed.
- The 2014 Cats were 5-1 (that one loss in triple OT at Florida) before losing six straight.
- The 2015 Cats started 4-1 (that one loss by five to Florida) and finished 1-6.
- The 2016 Cats were much more consistent, and upset rival Louisville for seven regular season wins! But ..
- ... the 2017 Cats were 5-1 (yep, Florida, by one point) before finishing 2-5 down the stretch.
The rest of college football saw five flat seasons. Kentucky administrators saw the formation of unprecedented depth and conditioning.
“When we hired Mark six years ago, he came with a detailed, long-term plan. A lot of guys do that, but to systematically work through the plan over a long period takes a lot of effort and extreme amount of patience on everyone’s part,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart told SB Nation.
“Changing cultures — and you hear a lot of that today — is not easy. We were in a tough spot.”
That plan was simple and twofold:
- Establish a stronger identity recruiting in Kentucky while expanding north to Ohio and the surrounding area. Whereas previous UK staffs and other nearby competitors on the northern border of the South would live and die in Florida, Ohio native Stoops sold UK on winning battles closer to home for quality players. Six years later, star running back Benny Snell and 26 other players on the 2018 roster are from Ohio.
- Develop depth. Build over the course of years, no matter how slow. This meant redshirting as a habit and playing the long game of signing “low-floor, high-ceiling guys,” as SB Nation’s Bud Elliott describes them.
When Barnhart looked at the UK roster following each one of those mediocre seasons, he saw a continual jump.
“Year after year, we were continuing to get people that were Southeastern Conference athletes, people who could compete in this league. And he didn’t rush the process of playing people early. There were a few you needed to put in the lineup early, but we’ve redshirted an awful lot, and we can afford to wait.
“We were building some depth in our program, and that’s something we’ve never had. It was important to us in terms in creating some staying power, because at the end of the season sometimes, it’s more a battle of attrition, of who’s left,” Barnhart said.
Kentucky’s identity as a basketball school creates an interesting debate about how patient a school can or will be.
“There are places that will never tolerate going 2-10. And there are a few of those that will fire the next guy for going 2-10 in his first year,” a former SEC head coach said.
“And you can’t argue [against the idea] that at Kentucky, you’re going to get more time than a place like Tennessee or even South Carolina, because they’re more invested in another sport and because there’s no expectation to win big.”
This perception is at the core of the conversation about Stoops and Kentucky. Was he given a longer leash because of attention focused on basketball?
And if so, doesn’t that make “basketball school jobs” more appealing for coaches looking for security? Barnhart and Stoops agreed on a new contract in 2017 that just triggered an extension to 2024 with UK’s win over Missouri, raising his $4 million annual salary by $250,000 a year plus bonuses.
“The argument about a regular school and a basketball school is probably lazy, or at least ill-informed,” an SEC athletic director told SB Nation.
“Where Mitch succeeded with Stoops was bringing in a quality coach and letting him work. Trusting him to build and not letting anyone else put a timeline on it. Not all of us might get the same timeline, but there’s no such thing as a non-football school in this league. We’re all a part of the same revenue deal. The brand of the SEC is too strong for a school to write off any revenue sport and say ‘we’re just this.’”
“So maybe if you’re considered a basketball school and that means your fans and your media are more patient, that’s an advantage.”
How long Kentucky can maintain this level of success is unknown, but they’re better positioned now than ever before.
By traditional standards, it feels unlikely that UK will be a perennial contender for the SEC East. Then again, given the volatility and instability of the division, it’s not impossible.
On Thursday, Louisville lost freshman quarterback Jordan Davis to transfer, compounding an already disastrous season for Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals. Hours later, UK secured a verbal commitment from four-star athlete Wandale Robinson, who had offers from Ohio State and Nebraska.
If things were to change for the long term, they’d require continual steps like that.
“I keep going back to steadiness. The program and Coach Stoops are just steady throughout. He’s never too high or too low, and he’s a guy with an incredible amount of resolve,” Barnhart said.
“A lot of people want style points [in coaching],” Barnhart said. “I think there’s a style to being all substance.”