LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Rupp Arena throbbed with the kind of manic energy created when ESPN's College GameDay starts the party in the morning for a game that doesn't tip off until 9 p.m. A mix of college students with raging hormones, grown-ups acting like college students, beer, bourbon and the thrill of a matchup with the No. 2 team in the nation cranked the volume in the place past jet-engine level well before the first bars of the national anthem floated into the air.
It was into this Big Blue spectacle that Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops led a group of high school juniors wearing letter jackets from schools across the eastern half of the country. The prep stars tried their damnedest to appear cool as they waded through the throng toward their seats, but most couldn't stop themselves from staring slack-jawed at the madness all around them. Many college football coaches prefer to build Junior Days around big basketball games because they tend to energize a school. With the Wildcats playing Florida and the nation watching on Feb. 15, Stoops knew he could wow his top targets in the class of 2015. He personally escorted Damien Harris, a five-star tailback from Berea, Ky., who earlier in the week had been personally escorted by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to watch Michigan play the Buckeyes in Columbus. As Stoops and Harris climbed the stairs, they stopped every few feet to reciprocate high-fives from fans who, thanks to Stoops, celebrated National Signing Day in February -- not the one in November reserved for Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari's annual haul of McDonald's All-Americans -- for the first time since quarterback Tim Couch faxed his letter of intent to the Wildcats in 1996.
Harris was representative of the group of 20 or so players that Stoops, who in November completed his first season as coach, had invited to Lexington that day. (Per NCAA rules, the juniors and their families had to pay their own way on the trip. Players cannot make official visits until they are seniors.) All have other options. Most of those other options have been far more successful than Kentucky over the past few seasons. Take Harris, for example. The Wildcats went a combined 4-20 in 2012 and '13. Ohio State went 24-2 over that same span.
Yet Stoops and his staff believe they can convince players being recruited by the nation's football powers to come to Lexington. After all, Stoops and company have so far this year convinced massive defensive tackle Matt Elam (Elizabethtown, Ky.) to turn down Alabama to stay in his home state. They also convinced quarterback Drew Barker (Burlington, Ky.) to turn down South Carolina. Kentucky's signees used to turn down Indiana and Purdue. Elam, Barker and the rest of the players in Stoops' first full recruiting cycle had plenty of other choices and chose the Wildcats anyway. Those wins on the recruiting trail have energized a long-suffering but shockingly supportive fan base. "They want to know that we can go into those fights and win them," Stoops said. "You're not going to turn the corner until you start getting some great players. So I thought [the 2014 class] was important on so many levels."
Rivals.com ranked Kentucky's class No. 17 in the nation this year. Scout.com and ESPN ranked the Wildcats' haul No. 20. That doesn't necessarily mean anything until the players actually take the field, but it puts Kentucky in a far better position than when it finished No. 63 in the Rivals rankings in 2012, after former coach Joker Phillips inked his final class of signees.
Rivals: Top 25 college football recruiting classes after National Signing Day 2014
Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator, replaced Phillips in December 2012 and immediately set about trying to upgrade the Wildcats' talent. After cobbling together what he could for the class of '13, Stoops and his staff began punching above their weight for the class of '14. By the end of last June, Kentucky had 17 commitments. Despite a 2-10 season last fall, the Wildcats eventually landed an astounding 16 of those players. The other, offensive tackle Derrick Kelly (Havana, Fla.), happened to sign with defending national champion Florida State, which plays just 16 miles from his hometown. "Through the whole year, we lost one guy," Stoops said. "That's just unheard of in this day and age."
Stoops considers the 2014 class unusual both because the players bonded so quickly, and because they seemed determined to help reshape Kentucky football. Barker, who enrolled last month, agrees. "Kentucky should be good at football," he said. "Why can't they? They have all the resources." While Wildcats don't have the resources of, say, the Crimson Tide, they do have decent facilities and will soon have cutting-edge digs. They've been approved to build a new football training center, and Commonwealth Stadium is about to undergo a top-to-bottom renovation which, while it will reduce capacity from 67,000 to 60,000, will also modernize a cozy home field that can get surprisingly loud.
One major misconception about Kentucky is that fans care exclusively about basketball. While they do care about basketball as much as Alabama fans care about football, they also have been quite faithful to the football team -- even though the team has given them few rewards for their fidelity. The fans may have bailed toward the end of the Phillips era in 2012, but just two years earlier, the Wildcats averaged 66,070 tickets sold. The numbers were even better when Kentucky was coached by Rich Brooks, the current professional gentleman of leisure, whose stint in Lexington was highly underrated.
The Wildcats now look a little like South Carolina did in 2005 -- like a perennial doormat with a fan base that deserves far better. In fact, Stoops has studied how Steve Spurrier transformed the Gamecocks from a team that counted bowl berths as a sign of success into one that has gone 33-6 in the past three seasons. South Carolina's rise to elite status began on National Signing Day '09, when the Gamecocks landed two of their state's top prospects, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Before that, the best players in the Palmetto State usually signed with Clemson or crossed a border for college. The arrival in Columbia of Gilmore and Jeffery begat the signings of Marcus Lattimore in '10 and Jadeveon Clowney in '11, and suddenly South Carolina was a player.
Stoops hopes to do the same thing at Kentucky, and he knows that the process starts at home. According to Rivals.com, the Wildcats signed four of the state's top five recruits in 2014 (Barker, Elam, Louisville defensive end Lloyd Tubman and Bowling Green defensive tackle Adrian Middleton). The three highest ranked home-state recruits in the class of '15 (Harris and Bowling Green linebackers Eli Brown and Emmitt Smith) attended Junior Day on Feb. 15. "There's not a ton of Division I players here, but there's some very good quality," Stoops said. He knows that in addition to getting those players to stay home, he must also open pipelines.
That could become easier as the SEC brand continues to grow stronger. The league that won every BCS title from 2006 to '12 carries a lot of cachet, but most of the conference's schools are still content to recruit only in the South. Kentucky is a southern state, but not by much. The Cincinnati airport is in Hebron, Ky. Some of the nation's best high school football is played in Cincy, and those players -- whether they're from the Kentucky or Ohio side of the state line -- can be in Lexington in less than 90 minutes. Barker, the dual-threat quarterback who may take the helm of coordinator Neal Brown's offense as a freshman next fall, is one such player. "We're proud to say he's a Kentucky guy, but he's been to a lot of Reds games," Stoops cracked. "He's right across the river."
Of course, Stoops is a member of the first family of football in Youngstown, Ohio. His Buckeye State roots run deep, so he was thrilled during his interview when Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart mentioned recruiting to the north as well as to the south. "One of the things we talk to a lot of our coaches about is the six-hour radius from Lexington," Barnhart said. "You can get to a lot of places." Indeed. Cincinnati is 82 miles from Lexington. Indianapolis is 190. Chicago is 368. Pittsburgh is 371. "A lot of those kids would love to come play football in the Southeastern Conference," Barnhart said. "We're their northernmost option."
In the class of 2014, the Wildcats signed 11 players from Ohio. But not every player who Stoops landed could drive to campus in less than six hours. He also signed four prospects from Florida and two from Texas. But even the players from far away resisted the urge to sign with a more recently successful program in order to buy the dream that Stoops is selling at Kentucky. "That's when you know you've got a special group," he said. "They're leaders. They're not afraid. ... Those guys that are looking at things very closely? They can tell that you're not far off."
Now all Stoops has to do is win some games. The members of the 2014 signing class will likely get their SEC trial by fire. Like Calipari, his hoops counterpart, Stoops will probably have to play plenty of freshmen, though for different causes. Still, there was a reason the crowd at Rupp Arena on Feb. 15 forgot about basketball for a moment to cheer the commercial broadcast on the JumboTron -- it also ran locally during the Super Bowl -- that featured Barker and the other early enrollees all wearing the Wildcats' new gray uniforms. These are fans that might love hoops a little more than football, but they love football nevertheless. "Basketball deserves the attention," Stoops said. "They've been good for a lot of years. But at the same time, our fans are still starved for football."
Stoops has upgraded the ingredients. Now, he has to cook the meal that will satisfy that hunger.