After back-to-back wins over Florida, reality overtakes old perception of UK football

Published 2:12 pm Monday, September 12, 2022


Contributing columnist

Mark Stoops’ first game as Kentucky’s head coach was against Western Kentucky in Nashville. Not only did the Wildcats lose 35-26 to the Hilltoppers, but UK finished the year 2-10, was 0-8 in Southeastern Conference play and lost seven games by 13 or more points.

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I still remember a veteran NFL scout telling me before Kentucky played Western Kentucky that the Wildcats had “maybe three or four” players that would start for Western Kentucky.

Stoops took over a program from coach Joker Phillips that had lost 38-8 and 40-0 to Vanderbilt the previous two seasons. In Stoops’ first year in 2013 UK lost 22-6 to Vanderbilt.

Fast forward to 2022 and Kentucky is coming off a second straight win over Florida for the first time since 1976-77 and second win in five years in Gainesville. That propelled Kentucky to ninth in the Associated Press rankings this week and 10th in the coaches poll. It is the earliest Kentucky has ever been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll since 1965 when UK was ranked sixth after two games.

Associate coach/recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow has been with Stoops at Kentucky since day one. He appreciated Stoops becoming the all-time winningest coach at UK with his 61st win at Florida to move past Paul “Bear” Bryant. Stoops was 12-26 to start his rebuilding project at UK but has gone 49-27 since then. He lost 12 of 14 matchups against ranked teams but is 8-8 in these games since 2018.

Marrow presented Stoops with the game ball Saturday night after his third win over Florida in five years.

“No other coach could have done what Mark Stoops has done,” said Marrow. “Sometimes coaches pick programs to start with. Mark Stoops took this program and rebuilt it. Not taking shots at anyone, but we had MAC (Mid-American Conference). Guys played their butts off. We put that culture in but we had to bring in talent.

“I tell him no man could have done here what you have by taking a program and putting it on a national level where people are talking about it. We are known for basketball but now people see that (UK) logo and also think football. He is unselfish and UK could not have a better person representing them.”

Others agree.

Former UK quarterback Reese Phillips posted on Twitter that “Stoops needs a status while he’s still coaching” immediately after the Florida win.

“Stoops has Kentucky to the point now that we may not be an underdog in any other game this year except Georgia. That’s the type of respect we have now,” said former UK all-SEC running back Anthony White. “We have all kinds of players on the depth chart now.”

Marrow said he’s happy to be Stoops’ “co-pilot” and knows how much Stoops wants to make people proud of the program, including those who still have trouble believing in UK.

Already Stoops is being mentioned as a possible candidate at Nebraska after the Cornhuskers fired coach Scott Frost Sunday. That’s no surprise considering what Stoops has done.

“We have got to the point where this is a really good football program. We are not going to back down from anyone,” Marrow said. “I know at times even some of our fans have doubts and may not really believe. Mark has this team ready to go to try and win the SEC East and this win was just another step in that direction.”