Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Settle down, Kentucky

Kentucky's coaching search lasted all of three days past the end of the regular season and apparently was conducted entirely in Morse code since there was nothing and nothing and nothing and then this:
Mark Stoops was announced Tuesday as the new head football coach at the University of Kentucky. He replaces Joker Phillips, who was fired earlier this month following a 1-9 start to the Wildcats' season.

Stoops, 45, spent the past three years as the defensive coordinator at Florida State.
Oh. OK.

Somewhat surprisingly, Stoops' name had come up just about nowhere before that announcement despite his widely recognized status as one of the better D-coordinators in the country, his age (he just turned 45 a couple months ago) and his lineage. Maybe there was an assumption that he wouldn't be of much interest to the schools worth coaching given his lack of head coaching experience; I dunno. His resume lacks pretty much nothing else.

Here are some numbers (these are Florida State's rankings in total defense and scoring defense under Stoops, who took over after the disaster that was 2009, when FSU finished 108th and 94th in those two categories under Chuck Amato): 42nd and 20th in 2010, fourth and fourth in 2011, second and seventh in 2012. That's (a) a legit turnaround and (b) the biggest reason Florida State is Florida State again.

And going back a little further, Stoops was Arizona's defensive coordinator from 2003-09, pretty much directly coinciding with UA's respectability before a defensive implosion resulted in Mike Stoops getting fired. The defense gradually improved in yards allowed from 86th to 49th to 53rd to 24th and 25th in his last two years as D-coordinator before he got the job at Florida State, then regressed a little in 2010 (33rd) before going nuclear (111th) in 2011. Clearly (especially based on what's happened at Florida State), that wasn't a coincidence.

So yeah: There is no question at this point that Stoops is an elite defensive coach after 10 years of awesomeness at two BCS-conference schools. An interesting comment from not-homer-tastic Kentucky site A Sea of Blue:
... this was quite possibly as much of a "home run" hire as Kentucky would have been able to get. Stoops is essentially the ACC's version of Kirby Smart.
I hadn't thought about that before but can't really argue a whole lot with the comparison. FYI, Stoops is also pretty widely recognized as a very good recruiter, which isn't insignificant at place that doesn't necessarily sell itself. Getting good players is, um, good.

Also good: getting good assistants. Yahoo reported that Stoops is rumored to be bringing in Texas Tech O-coordinator Neal Brown, a Kentucky alum who would represent a pretty impressive hire considering that he was supposedly a candidate for the head coaching job and instead would be making a lateral move (at best). There's also a report out there that Florida State O-coordinator James Coley is taking the job, which seems even less plausible but hey newspapers journalistic credibility etcetera etcetera. If either one of those stories turns out to be accurate, Stoops will have made more progress toward competitiveness than Joker Phillips ever did (and will have gutted Jimbo Fisher's staff in the process).

So ... Mitch Barnhart: You done good, even if all the delusional people were hoping for Bobby Petrino and the not-so-delusional ones were hoping for Sonny Dykes or one of the various 40-points-a-game guys from Coordinator Land. Stoops definitely isn't one of those guys but is as good on one side of the ball as just about anybody in the country, and Kentucky doesn't usually have access to that level of coaching (basketball notwithstanding).

Actually winning games is another matter, though. Kentucky hasn't had a coach leave with a winning record or even finished a season above .500 in SEC play in my lifetime, which yikes. There are some massive inherent disadvantages at Kentucky; that's how the previous sentence is even possible. It's really hard to win with any consistency there. It's not that hard to be vaguely competitive, though, and Stoops -- especially with Brown/Coley as his offensive coordinator -- ought to be able to piece together a decent defense and a better-than-recent-offenses offense to the point that said vague competitiveness is a reasonable expectation.

This was my assessment when Phillips got fired a couple weeks ago, and it still holds true:
... what matters isn't as much philosophy (although scoring points Chip Kelly-style helps a little in terms of recruiting and selling tickets and all that useful stuff) as just winning some freakin' games. It can be done. The good news is it really can't get any worse; the bad news is it really can't get any worse. 
The bar is set pretty freakin' low right now after three years of regression culminated in unequivocal awfulness this year, and by "unequivocal awfulness" I mean "2-10 with no SEC wins and a loss to Western Kentucky." That's unequivocal awfulness.

I excerpted that thing from A Sea of Blue earlier that compared Stoops to Kirby Smart, but I think he might actually be more comparable to James Franklin, a relatively young guy known as a very good coordinator (albeit an offensive coordinator) and very good recruiter who took a seemingly awful SEC job at Vandy and is now 14-11 and en route to his second bowl game in two years.To be clear, I don't think Stoops will have Kentucky in a bowl game in each of the next two years; if that happens, he'll probably be gone because he'll have his choice of jobs just about anywhere in the country. But winning in the long term is what matters, and Stoops' resume includes a lot of data points that indicate that he can do so.

Really, the question isn't whether Mark Stoops made sense for Kentucky; that question was pretty thoroughly answered via the information above. The question is whether Kentucky made sense for Mark Stoops, who could've been the 2014 or '15 version of Bob Stoops/Will Muschamp/Mark Richt but apparently would prefer to be the 2013 version of James Franklin. I guess he's gonna find out one way or another, with his future and Kentucky's future (at least in the short term) both pretty heavily leveraged on "one way."


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