THE HISTORY OF Kentucky Wildcats football is an encyclopedia of what-ifs and almost.
What if Bear Bryant hadn't reached an impasse with Adolph Rupp and UK administrators and stayed in Lexington longer than eight seasons? What if Marty Moore had taken a knee against Clemson in the 1993 Peach Bowl? What if Mike Leach had stayed as Tim Couch's offensive coordinator for a third year? What if Jared Lorenzen had hung on to the ball against Florida in 2003? What if the Wildcats hadn't lost to South Carolina in 2007, the week before their upset win over No. 1 LSU?
What if someone had just knocked down the damn football against LSU in 2002 instead of allowing the Bluegrass Miracle to happen?
No bowl wins in 22 years. No wins over Tennessee for 17 years. No wins over Florida for 16 years. Anyone who grew up as a citizen of Big Blue Nation was well-educated in every single one of those excruciating stats and streaks and slumps, told to accept their lot in life as the SEC's token basketball school and live with it.
"It takes a toll, there's no question about it," recalled Andre Woodson, captain of one of Kentucky's small streaks of football light. As quarterback he led the team through magical back-to-back 8-5 seasons, including the 2007 win over LSU and the start of the school's first three-year bowl win streak. "But I think if you really look back, there were moments of hope. Seasons and games where you could see what this program and what this fan base was capable of; they just needed the right person to come in and show this team and this town how to reach that potential consistently. That right guy is here now."
Woodson is speaking of head coach Mark Stoops. Stoops is in his ninth season at the Kentucky helm, but unlike Bryant back in the day, there was no eighth-year tension with the bosses or with basketball. John Calipari is all-in. Once-sleepy Commonwealth Stadium has received a $120 million extreme makeover, transformed into the raucous show palace of Kroger Field, the place that over the past two weeks swallowed up Florida at home for the first time since 1986, then fueled a 42-21 throttling of LSU.
Kentucky is 6-0 for the first time since 1950, when Bryant led the Wildcats to their lone SEC title. This team is already guaranteed to make a school-record sixth straight bowl appearance. The only question is what bowl will it be? Perhaps its first visit to the Sugar Bowl since Bryant's 1950 team defeated Oklahoma en route to a final ranking of No. 7 in the nation? The beginning of that postseason answer kicks off Saturday when UK visits No. 1 Georgia, a team Stoops has never beaten in eight tries.
"I don't get into the history of it all like you do, other than knowing that we have been able to accomplish some things that haven't been done here in a long time, if ever," Stoops said. "The key to our success has been hard work, but also finding a new way to think about these big games. For too long it's been about hoping to compete. Now it has to be about knowing you will compete in those games and then expecting to win those games."
The 54-year-old's tone is resolute. It's not coachspeak. It's belief. And there's nary a what-if or almost to be found.
VINCE MARROW REMEMBERS sitting in Bo Pelini's hotel room the night before the Big Ten championship nine years ago in Indianapolis. Pelini was head coach at Nebraska; Marrow was an assistant, coaching tight ends. Their families were close, as they had grown up together in Youngstown, Ohio, and often before games they'd chat about football and life.
On this night, they were talking about their hometown and how one of its native sons, Mark Stoops, had been named the head coach at Kentucky three days earlier. Then Pelini dropped some news: Stoops wanted to hire Marrow.
Marrow tried to play it cool, telling Pelini not to worry about it and focus on taking care of business tomorrow. But he had to ask: "What do you think?"
"And I'll never forget it," Marrow said. "He said, 'You can go there, but y'all will get your asses kicked.'"
Marrow laughed and laughed and laughed.
"He was right," he said. "Come on, man."
Pelini was only telling the truth about the reputation of Kentucky at the time. The program was something worse than bad. It was irrelevant. Setting aside how it was completely overshadowed by the school's legendary basketball team, it had gone 2-10 the season before and had never appeared in the SEC championship game (which started in 1992).
Pelini couldn't have known -- no one could have -- that Stoops would be able to change that and remake Kentucky football into something that mattered. He couldn't have known that a day like Saturday would ever come, with the 11th-ranked Wildcats facing top-ranked Georgia in a game that could decide the winner of the SEC East.
It took time, effort and patience, but Stoops said he walked into Lexington knowing "very clearly what I was getting into."
"It's really the way I grew up," he said. "It's all I know. Nothing comes easy, just put your head down and work. There are no shortcuts. That's a fact. There's no such thing as an overnight success."
STOOPS KNEW THE value of hard work from an early age.
"There's many coaches that use the blue-collar mentality, but I grew up two blocks from the steel mill and I smelled that air every day," he said. "So I know very clearly what it's like to have a blue-collar mentality."
He got a lesson in patience early on, too.
His first full-time job in college football was at South Florida in 1996 -- a season in which the Bulls played no actual football games. Jim Leavitt had been hired to build a brand-new program in Tampa, and his fourth hire was Stoops to coach defensive backs.
The staff worked out of trailers that first year. Stoops lived in the dorms with a roommate, earning $12,000 a year. At night, he worked a second job in construction.
It turns out that he was a pretty good painter, he said.
And as much as working two jobs took its toll on him physically and mentally, it also reaffirmed something in him.
"It was probably one of the happiest times of my life because I was doing what I wanted to do, coaching football," he said.
Stoops left after one season and began to climb the ladder, taking jobs at Wyoming, Houston, Miami, Arizona and Florida State. At the age of 45, he finally got the call to interview for the head-coaching job at Kentucky.
His pitch to athletic director Mitch Barnhart was different from those of the other candidates. During a time when the spread offense was all the rage, allowing coaches to maximize lesser talent, Stoops said he wanted to keep things simple. They'd be a physical football team, running the ball and playing solid defense.
Granted, they weren't built for that, but that's what recruiting was for. With a little time, he believed he could reshape the roster and create what he believed would be a more solid foundation for the future.
"Even if we could have been better offensively and throwing it around, I'm not sure we would have won as many games," Stoops said. "And I'm not sure it would have lasted."
Besides, he added, "You know and I know that if it was a quick fix here, then there clearly would be the NCAA coming in to investigate it."
It turns out that was music to Barnhart's ears -- not the thought of the NCAA poking around, but a physical style of football. Kentucky had helped birth the spread offense with the Hal Mumme Air Raid in the late 1990s. But as fun as it was to watch, it hadn't proved to be sustainable.
Barnhart wanted a different culture, a different mindset. He saw a program that was lacking physicality, lacking toughness and a commitment to defense. He wanted someone who believed in those things and would put an even bigger emphasis on recruiting.
Stoops' pitch fit perfectly.
"It's been a journey of just incredible effort on Mark's part and his staff, and I'm really proud of them," Barnhart said. He added, "Our teams reflect Mark's passion for the game, and his toughness."
NOW STOOPS' ASSOCIATE head coach and recruiting coordinator, Marrow remembers getting the call from Stoops one day and how Stoops told him, "I think we can do something good, but I need you to come to Kentucky with me."
Marrow had reason to believe in Stoops. Their families had known each other for years. Marrow's older brothers were recruited by Stoops' uncle. Marrow and Stoops would play together as kids and then become teammates in high school in football and basketball. Marrow joked that it was Stoops' job to get him the ball and get the heck out of the way.
As the two spoke about the possibility of reuniting at Kentucky, they started talking about recruiting. Marrow looked up Lexington and its proximity to their native Ohio -- how close it was to Cincinnati, to Columbus, to Youngstown.
"Oh man," Marrow said. "I agree with you, Mark, we could do some damage."
It was difficult, leaving one friend for another, but Marrow packed his bags and hit the road in recruiting.
"At that time everyone was trying to recruit the South," Marrow said. "And to be honest, Kentucky was looking like a joke. Nobody wanted to go to Kentucky. So we made the plan to go to our home state. Let's lock down Kentucky and tell those boys in Ohio, 'Hey, you don't have to go to the Big Ten to play great football.'
"That was the message, and it paid off."
Not that it was easy, though.
One particularly uncomfortable visit stands out. Marrow was in Lagrange, Ohio, recruiting tight end C.J. Conrad when Conrad pulled out a photo. It was sent from a prominent Big Ten coach at the time and it showed a moment a year earlier when Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt 40-0. And while the score was bad enough, Marrow couldn't get over the setting; there had to be fewer than 3,000 fans in the stands.
Conrad corroborated the story. To this day, he remembers thinking of Marrow, "Who is this dude talking about this program like it's Alabama?"
"I'm getting recruited by a bunch of Big Ten schools, and then all of the sudden this dude from Kentucky comes in and he was hyping up Kentucky like, 'We're going to do this, we're going to do that.' I was like, 'What?' I didn't even watch Kentucky football," he said.
Conrad eventually came around, committing to Kentucky over Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas and others. His 12 career touchdowns is the second most by a tight end in school history. Today, he's a graduate assistant on Stoops' staff.
Since 2014, Kentucky has signed 12 top-15 prospects in the state of Ohio. Michigan has signed only eight. Two of those Ohio products, Benny Snell and Lynn Bowden, went on to become stars in Lexington and were drafted by the NFL.
THERE'S A NARRATIVE in the college football ether that what Kentucky is today is a result of patience on the part of Barnhart and the administration. But in some ways, it's the opposite. Stoops politely bristles at the notion that he was handed some sort of charitable gift of a fourth year. He started his UK career with a mark of 12-24, a two-win inaugural campaign followed by a pair of 5-7 seasons. Since then, he is 44-26, including the now-legendary 10-3 campaign of 2018, the current three-bowl win streak and this year's undefeated start.
"Without a doubt, you couldn't do it without the support that we've had, but I also would say that I gave no one any reason to fire me," Stoops explained, pointedly, when the word "gift" was used to describe that turnaround fourth season. "We got better, and we've gotten better. Early on, was there some frustration by fans, by me, by everyone? Of course, but that comes with it. I think, even with the wins and losses, I think everybody can see when there's progress being made and when there's not. I know that's the approach I've had for nine years. Don't worry about everybody else, just concentrate on ourselves every day. And that's cliché. It's boring. But it's so true. It's the only way you can survive."
Meanwhile, Stoops waited on the administration for the upgrades he needed to lure top-flight recruits: that stadium renovation and a new $45 million football-only facility being the two major pieces to the puzzle.
In 2014, Kentucky's football budget was roughly $16 million. Now it's $29 million.
Barnhart said they still need to find a way to build an indoor practice facility, which is now commonplace in the SEC, and a source said Kentucky's salary pool for assistant coaches is still among the lowest in the conference.
"He's still playing with a short stick," the source said. "They haven't caught all the way up to speed."
But one also gets the feeling that Stoops, deep down, likes being just a step or two behind here or there. The only person who works harder than the one ranked No. 1 is the person who is chasing the one at the top. Kentucky has been chasing the upper echelon of the SEC for so long, and Stoops has been grinding it out on the sideline for so long, that a Big Blue chip will always be sitting atop their shoulder pads, no matter what success might reveal itself around the next corner, whether that corner be in Athens, Georgia, this weekend or somewhere else down the line.
"I think it's easy for us to sell that we are improving, that we're developing guys, giving them proper medicine to help them reach the goals that they want," Stoops says. "I can promise you, our players at Kentucky like playing here and I like coaching them. If somebody can entice them to another program with money and other things, then so be it.
"But we're going to invest in our players. We're going to invest in the relationship piece, and we're going to get the most out of them. And people know now, we're also going to win some football games at Kentucky. What's more fun than winning football games?"