Here is a good bar bet for all of you who think you know college football trivia:
Who has coached the most seasons in Kentucky football history?
If you said Paul “Bear” Bryant you would be wrong. Bryant coached for eight seasons in Lexington (1946-1953), winning an SEC championship in 1951.
If you said Jerry Claiborne, you’d be wrong again. Claiborne coached eight seasons at UK (1982-1989), his alma mater.
The correct answer?
Would you believe Fran Curci and Mark Stoops?
Curci coached for nine seasons at Kentucky (1973-1981), going 10-1 (6-0 SEC) in 1977 with the only loss to Baylor. But the Wildcats were not eligible to win the SEC championship or go to a bowl that season due to NCAA sanctions handed out in 1976.
Stoops, who was hired as head coach in 2013, is beginning his ninth season at Kentucky having taken the Wildcats to five straight bowl games, something no other UK coach has ever done.
When the Wildcats open the 2021 season against Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 4, Stoops will tie Curci for the most games coached at Kentucky with 100.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Stoops when we talked by phone recently. “In some ways it seems like I’ve been here a lifetime. In other ways it feels like I just got here. If you look at history, not a lot of guys stay in one place for nine years. But this place has always felt like it was a good fit for me.”
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Stoops was born into a coaching family and has used those roots to tap into that talent-rich state for Kentucky’s benefit. There were 22 players from Ohio on the 2020 roster.
He also had stops at Miami (DB coach) and Florida State (DC), which opened up some recruiting doors in the Sunshine State. So by the time Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart hired Stoops in 2013 to replace Joker Phillips he was ready to be a head coach.
Now it has not been easy. In Stoops’ very first game as a head coach in 2013 the Wildcats lost to Western Kentucky and Bobby Petrino in Nashville, 35-26. Kentucky went 0-8 in the SEC and finished 2-10 overall.
The goal, of course, was to get to a bowl game as soon as possible. Then came two years of heartbreak.
In 2014 the Wildcats finished 5-7 with a brutal three-overtime loss to Florida and a 44-40 loss to Louisville with a bowl game on the line.
In 2015 Kentucky went 5-7 again, losing to Florida 14-9, to Auburn 30-27, and to Vanderbilt 21-17.
"We had some opportunities that didn't go our way and our fans were frustrated," said Mitch Barnhart, the athletics director at Kentucky. "They were anxious to see us make some progress. But Mark was laying a solid foundation. You have to build a program a block at a time."
In 2016 Stoops shook up his staff, bringing in new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, who was working for Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati. He also brought in Darin Hinshaw as a co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
It worked. Kentucky posted four straight winning seasons, including a 10-3 season in 2018 when the Wildcats finally broke Florida’s 31-game winning streak against them. In 2019 Kentucky lost its top two quarterbacks and Gran retro-fitted the Wildcats’ offense by putting wide receiver Lynn Bowden, Jr., in the shotgun formation. Kentucky went 8-5 and played in its fourth straight bowl game.
“Sometimes you just do what you have to do in order to give yourself a chance to win,” said Stoops of the 2019 season.
But of all the difficulties Stoops and his program have fought through over the years, none would be more trying than the 2020 season.
Everybody in the SEC had to battle the COVID-19 virus and the 10-game conference-only schedule. But those challenges paled in a comparison to watching John Schlarman, Kentucky’s beloved offensive line coach, slip away after a two-year battle with cancer. Schlarman, 45, died on Nov. 12, two days before Kentucky played and beat Vanderbilt 38-35 in Lexington.
“It was an extremely difficult time for everybody because we saw a little piece of him dying every day,” said Stoops. “It took its toll mentally on us.”
"It was tough to move through that emotional piece," said Barnhart. "But Mark's was resolute in continuing to move forward. He showed great leadership."
Despite its 4-6 record Kentucky went to its fifth straight bowl game, beating N.C. State 23-21 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl to finish 5-6. There were some other bright moments, such as a 34-7 win at Tennessee, Kentucky’s first in Knoxville since 1984.
But there was also a gut-wrenching loss to Ole Miss, where the Wildcats ran for 408 yards and six touchdowns but still lost, 42-41, in overtime because of a missed extra point.
Just getting through the COVID-plagued season and winning a bowl game would normally be enough for most teams. But when the season was over Stoops did a hard evaluation of his offense.
In 2020 Kentucky finished dead last in the conference in total offense, averaging only 318 yards per game. That was 115th (out of 127 schools) nationally. They were 107th nationally in scoring offense (21.8 ppg).
Stoops dismissed Eddie Gran.
“Eddie had a lot to do with the historical run that we made,” said Stoops. “He helped us achieve all of those goals. So I greatly appreciate the work he did for us. I am still extremely close to Eddie.
“On the flip side there comes a time when you have to evolve. I needed to go in a new direction.
“The game has changed and I share in this responsibility.”
Stoops took his time and studied his offense.
“I took a good hard look at what we wanted to look like and what we can be based on the kind of players we can recruit. We’re going to continue to be a physical football team and anybody who plays us understands that. But I decided to build on that.”
His journey included a trip to Los Angeles to meet with 35-year-old Liam Coen, who has been an assistant to NFL offensive wizard Sean McVay of the Rams for the last three seasons.
“When I look at the pro game a lot of hay is being made on first and second downs,” said Stoops.
It did not go unnoticed by Stoops what another young NFL rising star—31-year-old Joe Brady of the Saints—did for Joe Burrow (Heisman Trophy winner) and the LSU Tigers during a 2019 national championship season.
According to a story in The Athletic, during their meeting Coen pulled out a big binder with practice schedules and the duties for every person that would work under him. He had already scouted the two primary quarterbacks, Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, and four-star freshman Beau Allen. It didn’t take long before Stoops knew he wanted this guy.
Barnhart said that despite five straight bowl trips, Kentucky football "has goals that are bigger," he said. "We want to get to Atlanta. We want to represent the East. We're in a very difficult league. But that is his goal and our program's goal."
And it’s pretty clear that with their investment in him and the football program that Kentucky wants to keep Mark Stoops in Lexington.
Stoops’ current contract pays him just over $5 million per year and runs through the end of the 2024 season. After the 10-win 2018 season he got a new contract that increases his salary by $250,000 for each of the years remaining on the deal.
In July of 2016 Kentucky opened its $45 million state of the art football training and office complex. In 2015 Kentucky spent $110 million on renovating Commonwealth Stadium, now Kroger Field.
So what would it take for Stoops to leave?
His name came up when Florida State, where he was a DC to Jimbo Fisher from 2010-2012, was looking for a new head coach in 2019. Stoops and his brothers Bob and Mike all played at Iowa, where Kirk Ferentz, who turns 66 on Aug. 2, is entering his 23rd season as head coach. Whenever Ferentz reties, Stoops, 53, will be in the discussion.
He needs only 11 wins to catch Bryant as Kentucky’s all-time winner.
If he leads Kentucky to a sixth straight bowl game in 2021, you can bet that the phone is going to ring.
KENTUCKY HEAD COACHES
Paul “Bear” Bryant..8………….……60-23-5