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Remember, It's Still Stoops' Troops

New assistants are great, and all that, but the buck stops at someone else's desk

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky football’s new offensive coordinator is Eddie Gran – with Darin Hinshaw in as a twofer. Both are former staffers on the Cincinnati Bearcats.

If that isn’t making your toes tingle, mine aren’t tingling either.

I’m afraid that Big Blue Nation has lost some of its resilience. It has trouble getting hyped anymore by every new football announcement, each new step in the march to respectability, to bowl games, to SEC title contention, each new definitive Mark Stoops promise that "we’re as frustrated as you are, I promise you we’re going to get better!"

There have been too many of those breathless "this-is-it!" announcements, starting with the one, in November 2012, that Stoops was coming on board.

BBN wanted a change. Many were dazzled by the Stoops name, or by the success he’d had at Florida State, or just by what seemed to be a strong move in the right direction.

Then came an almost unprecedented surge in Kentucky’s recruiting fortunes and the arrival of all those big, multi-starred new high school athletes on campus, starting in 2013.

Then came a 2-10 season. But then also came forgiveness. It’s Stoops’ honeymoon, and besides he’s playing with Joker’s hand.

Then came a 5-1 start to the 2014 season. Here we go!

And then came – yes, we all know what then came, and has kept coming.

Neal Brown brought with him the Air Raid offense, and everyone went "ooooh!" It just sounded exciting. No concerns that Kentucky might not have the offensive linemen or the quarterback or the receivers to play a big-strike, downfield passing game.

It didn't. Brown’s Air Raid turned out to be more Air Grounded.

Exit Brown, enter Shannon Dawson from West Virginia, another proponent of the Air Raid. Even a casual college football fan probably recalled a 70-33 Mountaineer win in the 2011 Orange Bowl; 40 points a game; 500 yards of offense a game; 330 yards of passing offense.

Maybe only a WVU fan would have known that West Virginia also had a mountainous offensive line, mobile quarterbacks and receivers who could hold on to thrown balls.

But didn’t Kentucky now have an experienced, battle-tested quarterback, a veteran offensive line and all these big, athletic receivers? Turns out, not so much. And though Dawson’s smile and drawl were telegenic, he and Stoops just never appeared a match made in heaven.

So the 5-1 start to a 5-7 season in 2014, under Brown, became a 4-1 start to a 5-7 season in 2015, under Dawson.

Exit Dawson, enter Gran and Hinshaw.

Their Cincinnati offense put up some big numbers this past season. A couple of highlights: 52 against Central Florida, 49 against Tulsa, 46 in a loss to Memphis.

Before beating East Carolina 19-16 in the last game of the season, the Bearcats never scored less than 33 points in a game. They had 484 points in their first 11 games (prior to ECU), an average of 44 a game.

However, before your thoughts conjure the circuits overloading on the Commonwealth Stadium scoreboard next year, remember that Dawson brought the same credentials from West Virginia – and, for that matter, so did Brown from Texas Tech.

Remember, too, that Gran likes a running quarterback. Kentucky’s running quarterback has just run out the back door, to Boston College. Oops.

The hope, again, is that Gran will light the spark where the others failed. But it’s time for the focus to land not on the coach who’s picking the quarterback but on the coach who’s picking the offensive coordinator.

In other words, the head coach, sitting at that desk where the buck stops.

Sure, I think it’s cool to have a lot of bright, creative assistant coaches. But when did the assistant coaches become the keys to college football success? Truthfully, did anyone have any idea who the offensive coordinator was on those teams coached by Bear Bryant, Jimmy Johnson, Darrell Royal, Bo Schembechler, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden?

Not saying they didn’t have someone. Of course they did. But you rarely heard their names.

Only in the last 10 years or so have the TV cameras roaming the sidelines focused on Lane Kiffin, say, or Mike Bobo. Only recently has Gary Danielson spent any time discussing these assistants’ coaching tendencies, preferences, backgrounds and philosophies.

But when these promising, bright young assistants become heads, the programs becomes theirs. The decisions. The recruiting. The leadership. Did we care where Neal Brown came from, or what his strategies were? Not really. This was going to be Mark Stoops’ program.

I think Stoops is an outstanding football mind still stuck in an assistant coach mindset. I think he was tossed into the deep end of the pool a little too quickly, without his swim fins.

It’s hard to put a finger on it, exactly. But I’ll always remember his TV interview coming off the field at halftime during the Louisville game. He seemed too excited, too jazzed up, too unfocused, like he was thrilled to be leading 24-7, he just had no idea how it had all happened.

Which is not to say he couldn’t grow into the job. His brother had been only an assistant – at Iowa and Florida, among others – before he got the Oklahoma job in 1999. His first team was 7-5. His second team was 13-0.

His 17th team was 11-1, third or fourth in the nation (depending on the poll).

If there is a Stoops gene, no reason to think Mark doesn’t have it. But it will reveal itself in his decisiveness, leadership, gamesmanship and inspirational qualities, not in the assistant coaches he hires.

Bob Stoops’ 2015 Oklahoma team averaged 46 points a game, topping 60 twice and 50 six times.

Quick now, who is his offensive coordinator? I’ll save you a trip to Wikipedia. It’s Lincoln Riley. He’s about 30. This was his first year in Norman. He’d been at East Carolina before that. He seems to be a bright light. But do you think he’s the reason the Sooners had such a great season?

No, I don’t think so, either.