Mark Stoops knew exactly what he was getting into at Kentucky, a basketball-crazed school that just happens to reside in the toughest football conference in the land.
But whereas others might have seen barriers, Stoops saw opportunity. He saw passion. He saw a fan base thirsting for sustained football success.
“You always have a chance if you have a rabid fan base, and our fans are very hungry to have a successful team,” Stoops said. “That’s been evident with their support. It gives you a chance to recruit quality players and build your program the way you want to build it.”
Stoops is one of four new head coaches this season in the SEC along with Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
Of the four, Stoops probably has the steepest mountain to climb, although all four are inheriting programs that suffered through losing seasons a year ago.
As much as anything, Stoops will be fighting history this first season. That and a killer schedule.
It’s been nearly 60 years since a first-year head coach has guided Kentucky to a winning season. Blanton Collier, who succeeded the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, steered Kentucky to a 7-3 record in 1954.
The nine head coaches who followed all failed to produce a winning season in their first year on the job. And speaking of history, the Wildcats haven’t finished with a winning SEC record since 1977 when they were unbeaten.
They’re one of only two teams in the country this season (along with Tennessee) that faces five teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in the Associated Press preseason poll.
And to top it off, the Stoops era kicks off Saturday in Nashville against Western Kentucky and Bobby Petrino, the same Bobby Petrino the Kentucky administration passed on in favor of Stoops.
“It brings a little extra excitement,” Stoops said of the Petrino factor. “It’s a great challenge. He’s a great play-caller and a great offensive mind and had a lot of success in this league. It will be exciting for both of us.”
Despite what happens in this first game, or even this first season, Stoops has given the Big Blue Nation hope that bigger things are ahead. The Wildcats’ 2014 recruiting class is ranked 16th nationally by ESPN, and Stoops has really been able to make inroads in his home-state of Ohio.
It’s been a similar scenario with Jones at Tennessee. The Vols have soared to No. 3 nationally in ESPN’s 2014 recruiting rankings, which has given a beleaguered Tennessee fan base hope that one of the worst slides in school history is nearing an end.
The Vols have suffered through three straight losing seasons and haven’t won a bowl game since 2007.
Between them, Kentucky and Tennessee have won just four SEC games over the last two years, and two of those wins came against each other.
Jones has endeared himself to the Vols’ fans with his energy and passion, his brick-by-brick approach and the way he’s embraced Tennessee’s traditions.
“I’m just the caretaker. It’s not Butch Jones’ program. It’s Tennessee’s football program, and we want to get back to our blue-collar ways of playing extremely hard with great effort, great passion and a great intensity level,” said Jones, who won four conference championships in six seasons as a head coach at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.
“I can promise you we’ll take a relentless approach in everything we do.”
What Jones isn’t promising, and the same goes for Stoops, is instant success.
Over and above their killer schedules, both Tennessee and Kentucky will play a slew of younger players. The Vols are slated to start three freshmen, including true freshman Cameron Sutton at cornerback, in Saturday’s opener against Austin Peay.
The Wildcats’ receiving corps will be full of new faces, and they also lost two of their best offensive linemen from a year ago. On defense, the only senior they have in their two-deep at linebacker or in the secondary is middle linebacker Avery Williamson.
Stoops has been impressed with the way his team has prepared, but first games – especially with a whole new staff and whole new system on both sides of the ball – can be tricky.
“The big thing I want to see is us playing with an attitude and having some fun,” Stoops said. “From time to time, I see our team in a little bit of a shell. I don’t always see the juice and the excitement. I see them a little bit timid and playing not to make mistakes and things like that.
“It’s important to prepare very well and to be confident and to just let it rip. Our players know that we’re a work in progress. They’ve handled their business the right way and worked hard.
“We’ll see how it comes out this week.”