One of the toughest jobs in all of sports is being the head coach of a major college football program. Not only does the coach oversee the lives of countless young men, but he can often be the face of a football community as well.
An outstanding argument can be made for newly hired UK front man Mark Stoops as being the face of football in the Bluegrass, primarily because the state doesn't have a professional sports team of any kind. And with recruiting being the most important responsibility any college head coach has, in particular, recruiting the home state of their program, Stoops, as the face of football in the Commonwealth, has before him a real challenge. For successfully recruiting the top players in Kentucky has been a bit of a concern for UK in the past. For example:
Between 2010 and 2012, Stoop's predecessor, Joker Phillips, signed 15 players from the state of Kentucky, which is more than both the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky University, the two programs that should be considered major in-state competition for the top-rated talent in Kentucky.
Quantity, however, doesn't always equal quality. Of the 15 in-state players inked by Phillips during his tenure, only one of them was rated higher than three-stars -- That player was offensive lineman Darrian Miller from Bryan Station High School, who was rated four-stars by Scout.com (Patrick Towles was rated four stars by other recruiting organizations) -- and many of the in-state players who signed on to become Wildcats under Phillips have not seen a lot of meaningful playing time since their arrival in Lexington.
Keeping quality at home
The 'Cats face two big problems in regards to recruiting the state of Kentucky. The first of which is keeping in-state players from being poached by bigger programs from outside of the state.
Big-time talents from the Bluegrass have been known to be plucked from the state by huge programs. The most recent example of this concern came in 2011 when Lamar Dawson, who was a talented four-star linebacker from Danville, picked Southern California over staying at home to play for the Wildcats. Dawson is just one (and the latest example) of a top talent who was snatched away from the grasp of the Kentucky pigskin program.
This is a problem that Stoops will look to remedy.
Out-recruiting Charlie Strong and Bobby Petrino
The second problem facing Stoops, and potentially the most important of the two, is keeping the top Kentucky talents away from Louisville and WKU, a problem that has existed for quite some time. The most recent example of UK losing talent to UofL has to be from this past recruiting class -- Five-star wide receiver James Quick of Trinity High School chose to go to Louisville over Kentucky. This, again, is a problem that Kentucky has faced over the years. Keeping players away from Louisville, in particular, has been a struggle for many years.
Keeping players in-state has gotten more difficult over the past couple of years, though. Now Stoops, who has proved himself a more than capable recruiter, has recruiting adversaries such as Charlie Strong at Louisville and Bobby Petrino at WKU to contend with. Had Stoops been the UK head coach a few years ago when Steve Kragthorpe (UofL) and David Elson (WKU) were at the helm of their respective programs, Stoops would have had an easier time recruiting. For neither Kragthorpe nor Elson panned out to be very worthy recruiters, and history tells us that Petrino will have no problem recruiting, even at WKU. Recruiting battles could and most likely will get heated as these three coaches vie for the top talent in the Bluegrass.
Although recruiting other parts of the country are important, particularly in Florida and Ohio, Stoops does need to work hard to keep the best talent at home. He is off to a good start in doing that, as he kept four-star defensive lineman Jason Hatcher, from Trinity High School, in-state. Not only did Stoops get Hatcher to come to UK, but he got him to de-commit from Southern Cal and choose Kentucky. I don't believe it's an overstatement to say that turning Hatcher was a colossal victory for Stoops and UK.
Trinity High School and other traditional powerhouse programs are places that UK and Stoops need to get into and build relationships that didn't seem to be there under the Phillips' regime. Phillips had a modicum of success in Louisville (read: Central High School pipeline), but did not seem to recruit the top programs in the manner UK fans thought he should have.
While there are many outstanding football players in the state of Kentucky, not all of them will possess what it takes to put on the blue and white every Saturday. If Phillips' time at UK taught Wildcat fans anything, it's that the quantity of players a coach can get out of Kentucky is not what's important, rather, it is the quality of those players that is key.
With his early returns, Stoops seems to be well on his way to morphing Kentucky from a red state, to a blue state.