He’s about to begin his sixth season at Kentucky and Mark Stoops has laid the foundation of his football program. We may be on the verge of learning if it’s made of sand, clay or concrete.
Stoops has constructed a talented roster. Scattered among the sure-fire studs are some question marks; the more favorable answers that follow them, the better chance he has of leading his team to eight or more victories, a more prestigious bowl game and a more relevant role in the race for the SEC East.
But there are still the cynics out there who wonder if he can get it done in Lexington – heck, if ANYONE can get it done in Lexington. So many have tried. Only one has done it consistently well and that was generations ago. A couple flirted with greatness. Another dragged it from the depths of NCAA ruin to respectability. That’s it.
To think someone can come in and succeed the way Bear Bryant did may be folly, but this much we know: For anyone to come close in this day of bloated budgets and glistening facilities, the person who lifts Wildcat football to the heights the Big Blue Nation demands must be the Right Man with the Right Plan.
Greatness, it says here, would be seven or more wins consistently, with the occasional stab at a division title.
It’s been a real roller-coaster of a ride for longtime UK football fans, dating back some 71 years:
The Man: Bear Bryant (1946-1953)
The Plan: Sign Kentuckians but scour the hardscrabble football fields of Ohio, Pennsylvania and beyond for recruits, and then mold them into a team that could compete with the best in the country. Mission accomplished.
The End: Bryant left after the 1953 season for Texas A&M, before moving on to Alabama, where he became known as the best ever – until the current head of the Crimson Tide, Nick Saban. That man has a pretty good plan, himself.
The Man: Blanton Collier (1954-61)
The Plan: Pick up where Bryant left off and keep producing quality teams. It worked, for a while, but then a rule left in place when Bryant left crippled Collier’s program, as well as other UK teams for years to come. A new policy took hold – the school would recruit only home-grown players. Bowls were scarce back then and Collier’s teams failed to land a bid during his eight seasons.
The End: Despite a winning overall record, including a 5-2-1 mark vs. Tennessee, Collier was fired in 1961.
The Man: Charlie Bradshaw (1962-68)
The Plan: A Bryant disciple, he tried to rule the same way the Bear did. Bradshaw became infamous for his first squad, the “Thin Thirty.” A total of 88 players reported; only 30 lasted through his brutal workouts.
The End: Only one of his seven teams produced a winning record. He was fired after the 1968 season.
The Man: John Ray (1969-72)
The Plan: Dazzle UK fans with his “We Believe” slogan, stating upon arrival that Kentucky had enough talent to win immediately in the SEC. He was wrong.
To his credit, Ray convinced the school that it needed a new stadium. He just never got to coach there.
The End: When UK offered him just a one-year contract extension, Ray said good-bye.
The Man: Fran Curci (1973-81)
The Plan: Develop Kentucky into an SEC contender just as Bryant did – with homegrown talent, supplemented by the best players he could find outside the Commonwealth (Art Still, Derrick Ramsey).
It worked for a while. Curci’s 1976-77 teams went 18-5, including a win in the ’76 Peach Bowl. But he ran afoul of NCAA regulations which crippled his recruiting.
The End: Curci was fired after his ninth season.
The Man: Jerry Claiborne (1982-89)
The Plan: Clean up UK’s image – and win.
After going winless his first season, Claiborne’s next two teams landed bowl berths before settling into a pattern of mediocrity, with just five wins each of the next four seasons. His final UK team finished 6-5, well before six victories and a pulse would put a team into a bowl game.
The End: Knowing that opposing recruiters were using his age against him, Claiborne retired at least a year before he had planned.
The Man: Bill Curry (1990-96)
The Plan: Use the same formula that carried him to national Coach of the Year honors at Alabama.
Unfortunately, Curry made too many mistakes with his staff, including offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac, who clashed with top recruit Tim Couch. Curry also changed his offensive philosophy four times in five seasons.
The End: By the end of his run, Curry had a talented roster and finally had put together a strong staff, but too many losses had piled up by then. He was fired in 1996.
The Man: Hal Mumme (1997-2000)
The Plan: Find a different way to win.
Mumme succeeded, at first. Inheriting Couch, Craig Yeast, Anthony White and other talented offensive players, The Air Raid flourished. But NCAA violations once again bubbled to the surface, making it impossible for Mumme to survive his final season at 2-9.
The Man: Guy Morriss (2001-02)
The Plan: Survive NCAA sanctions and start over.
Morriss endured a 2-9 season but then posted a surprising 7-5 mark.
The End: Baylor threw a seven-figure salary at him and the Texas native headed for home.
The Man: Rich Brooks (2003-09)
The Plan: Survive those same NCAA sanctions, recruit well and coach the way he did at Oregon, which he transformed from perennial powder puff into a national power.
Brooks weathered enormous criticism and shaky support from his administration before coaching the Wildcats to four straight bowl games.
The End: With the state legislature dragging its collective feet, Brooks saw little hope for funding for new facilities, retiring after seven seasons.
The Man: Joker Phillips (2010-12)
The Plan: Step in after a Coach-in-Waiting period and ride the Brooks momentum.
Even though he and Brooks had talked of keeping the coaching staff intact, Phillips made wholesale changes. It didn’t work. He did snap the losing skids to Tennessee and Steve Spurrier, but lasted only three years.
The Man: Mark Stoops (2013- )
The Plan: Recruit the Commonwealth but hit Ohio harder than any UK coach ever has.
Stoops’ recruiting efforts have been stellar, some of the best in UK history. His teams have posted back-to-back winning records, but missed a shot at a special season in 2017. It may be talented enough talent to make another run at it this year.
He just might have the right plan, after all.