ATLANTA — The Bear tracks at Kentucky are not nearly as large or plentiful as those at Alabama, where a major campus street, the football stadium and a residence hall are named after former coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. And his museum is just a few blocks from Bryant-Denny Stadium on Paul Bryant Drive.
There is nothing named after Bryant at Kentucky. He didn’t coach there since 1953, whereas he won six national titles at Alabama during a stay from 1958-82 before passing away on Jan. 26, 1983. But Bryant still left quite a mark in Lexington after leaving the Maryland head coaching job before the 1946 season.
Bryant still holds the Kentucky record for career wins by a head football coach with 60 against 23 losses and five ties in eight seasons. Present Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is 59-53 after nine seasons. He can tie Bryant with a win over Miami of Ohio on Sept. 3 in Lexington and can break the record at Florida a week later or at home over the next two weeks against hometown Youngstown State and Northern Illinois.
Or, even if Stoops loses every game this season, he will still be the first football coach in history to reach his 10th season at Kentucky.
“Making me feel old, telling me I’m the first coach at Kentucky history to make it 10 years,” Stoops, 55, said Wednesday at the SEC Media Days. “Then I’m asked about how you felt about tying Bear Bryant’s record with the first victory of the year, breaking it with the second one.”
Before the 2013 season, Stoops took over a Kentucky program that went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in 2012 with two losing seasons before that. And he promptly went 2-10 and 0-8 himself.
“I know how difficult it is to walk into this league with the great coaching, with the recruiting, and starting like six feet below 14,” Stoops said, referencing the bottom of the 14-team SEC. He must have felt six feet under.
“Then trying to climb that ladder as high as we can,” he said.
He made gradual improvement to 5-7 twice in a row and 7-6 twice in a row before a 10-3 breakthrough in 2018 and a 5-3 SEC East finish for second. That was the first double-digit win season since Coach Fran Curci was 10-1 in 1977, but the NCAA took away those wins for rules violations.
The previous double-digit win season? Why, Bear Bryant at 11-1 in 1950. The Wildcats won their only football SEC title that year, too, at 5-1.
Stoops dropped to 8-5 and 5-6 in 2019 and in 2020 amid COVID, but his program bounced back last year with a 10-3 finish and another 5-3 runner-up spot in the East.
“The 10 years in Lexington is something that I am proud of because I know how difficult it is,” he said. “I am proud of that, and I appreciate the work. However, we’re not satisfied. We want to continue to grow. We want to continue to push it. Obviously some teams at the top of the food chain in the East and the West are doing some really special things. So you have to continue to elevate your game.”
When Stoops does topple Bryant’s win record at Kentucky, he and his older brother Bob Stoops, who is Oklahoma’s former coach, will each be the wins leader at a pair of Power Five colleges. The elder Stoops, 61, was 191-48 with the Sooners.
“With the record and all that, I appreciate you bringing it up, but it’s not a time to really reflect on that too much,” Stoops said. “I do honestly just personally think about my mother (Evelyn Stoops), because I want her to be there. For her to have two sons that have the all-time wins at Power Five programs. That’s really the only focus I have, is on my mother to be able to be there and share in that moment.”
Kentucky, considering the lack of high school football talent in the state compared to other SEC states and a lack of winning tradition, is one of the most difficult places to win consistently in the SEC.
“Stay the course, adapt and adjust when you can,” Stoops said. “You’re going to get accused of being hardheaded at times. You have to stay to your core beliefs is the only advice I can give anybody. Any coach, it’s just be authentic. To me, staying true to who I am, what I know is right, but adopting when you have to. For the longevity, you have to. You have to adapt and overcome any situation.”
Reigning national champion Georgia under Coach Kirby Smart is the situation Stoops must overcome to put Kentucky in its first SEC Championship Game. The Wildcats have lost 12 straight to the Bulldogs, including 30-13 last year and 34-17 in 2018 with the East on the line each time.
“Hopefully, next time when we’re in that situation, we’re more prepared. That’s the way I’ve always approached it with us,” Stoops said.
Kentucky trails Georgia 61-12-2 in the series. Bryant was 2-2 against Georgia as Kentucky’s coach, by the way.
“How do you gain on Georgia? I can’t answer that,” Stoops said. “Kirby’s done a great job. I have a lot of respect for him – the way they coach, recruit, the things they do in the program. They’re doing things right. I have to worry about us – how do I make us better. We all know there was a large gap between Georgia and No. 2. We’re all trying to close that gap.”
The Bear gap is nearing closure. Next, Kirby.
“I just saw Kirby up there,” Stoops said. “I could maybe try to whack his knees out or something, knock him out for a minute.”
If Stoops does step over Smart, maybe they’ll name a street after him on the Kentucky campus. And he’ll pass Bryant again.
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