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People probably thought Mark Stoops was crazy when he accepted the Kentucky head coaching gig on Nov. 27, 2012.
After all, Stoops was the defensive coordinator at Florida State, a college football powerhouse that would win a national championship without him just a year later. Stoops was leaving the grandeur of Tallahassee for the pit of Lexington. For a program coming off a 2-10 season, 0-8 in SEC play and last in the conference.
Kentucky was hardly a factor in college football.
Fast forward to 2021, and Stoops is still there. And he’s thriving. After recording the first 10-win season at Kentucky since 1977 in 2018, Stoops has the Wildcats rolling once more. Kentucky is 6-0, No. 11 in the AP Poll with a signature 20-13 win over Florida on Oct. 2, the first win against the Gators at home since 1986. Then there was last Saturday, when Stoops’ team throttled LSU 42-21, proving their status as major player in the SEC. Next up is a date with No. 1 Georgia in Athens on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on CBS. While nobody is expecting the Wildcats to upset the Bulldogs, stranger things have happened. And keeping it close and going toe-to-toe from a physical standpoint could be a statement for Stoops and Kentucky.
You could say Kentucky is a football school. Try saying that a decade ago when John Calipari was winning a basketball national championship with Anthony Davis as his star. But that’s reality. What’s also reality is that Stoops’ success has inevitably led to rumors of the 54-year-old leaving for a better job.
Bruce Feldman of The Athletic seems to think so, reporting last week that Stoops’ name is being tossed around for other head coaching jobs.
“Mark Stoops’ stock is rising,” Feldman tweeted. “He also could fit in a lot (of coaching) places regionally.”
Looking around the current landscape, one place might end up being on Stoops’ radar: LSU. One of the premier coaching jobs in college football could soon become an opening with Ed Orgeron’s seat heating up after the loss to Kentucky and an 8-8 record since winning the 2019 National Championship. With all the recruiting resources and history on its side, LSU seems like a can’t miss opportunity for Stoops, right?
Well as Mark Story from the Lexington Herald Leader points out, Stoops has quite a lot going for him at Kentucky. Start with Stoops’ contract. Stoops is the 15th highest paid coach in college football, raking in $5 million annually even before bonuses kick in. Since Kentucky has already qualified for a bowl game, Stoops will receive a $100,000 bonus. Should they earn a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, Stoops will get an extra $200,000. That seems very doable once they get past the Georgia game. Kentucky will finish with Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and Louisville, hardly a murderer’s row of opponents.
Then there’s Kentucky’s facilities. Story reports that the university unveiled a $110 million renovation that included a massive upgrade of Kroger Field, formerly Commonwealth Stadium. Stoops was also beneficial in raising $45 million through a fundraiser to build the Joe Craft Football Training Facility. While not to the level of an Alabama or a Texas A&M, Kentucky is no longer a laughingstock of SEC football facilities, which could play a role in Stoops’ decision to stay or leave.
This isn’t the first time Stoops has found his name on the rumor mill, with the coach reportedly in play for FSU’s opening in 2019 before Memphis head coach Mike Norvell was hired. What he’s done as Kentucky is arguably one of the most impressive coaching jobs of the past decade.
You could argue that Kentucky hasn’t even hit its ceiling under Stoops. Recruiting continues to tick up as the program becomes more desirable for recruits. Kentucky currently has the No. 22 ranked class in 2022, up from No. 34 in 2021. Narrow that down to the SEC and Kentucky is No. 8, up from No. 12 last year. That’s substantial improvement that is sure to keep going up as Kentucky keeps winning. An 11-or 12-win season this year could accomplish that and keep Stoops in Lexington for a long time.