In light of the recent loss at Florida, inevitable comparisons have been made to the records of Mark Stoops, Joker Phillips, and Rich Brooks. In fact, these comparisons go back at least as early as May when the Lexington-Herald’s Mark Story devoted a column to the topic. From that column:
Through three years (2013-15), Stoops has not won much, 12-24 (4-20 SEC). Through three years (2003-05), Brooks won even less, 9-25 (4-20 SEC). In his fourth year, even Brooks thought he was done after LSU pounded Kentucky 49-0 in the seventh game of 2006, leaving the Cats 3-4 and their coach 12-29 overall. Instead, Brooks’ team jelled and won five of its final six games including a victory over Clemson in the Music City Bowl.
That ignited a nice three-season run.
Stoops does not appear to be outperforming Brooks at a rate commensurate to his handsome salary; however, these are the raw numbers. They don’t capture the context of close games, blowouts, and everything in between.
Is there a better way to measure Stoops first three years? I think there is, and it’s pretty ugly.
Brian Fremeau recently released all FBS game results by margin of victory since 2007. He counted up each game played, and then categorized by Dominant Wins (25 points or more), Strong Wins (17-24 points), Moderate Wins (9-16 points), Narrow Wins (1-8 points), Narrow Losses (1-8 points), Moderate Losses (9-16 points), Strong Losses (17-24 points), and Dominant Losses (25 points or more).
Using this as the model, I’ve applied the same metrics to the first three years of the Brooks, Joker, and Stoops eras in order to see which coach fielded more competitive teams within their losing seasons.
Rich Brooks (2003-2005)
Brooks had his share of Dominant Losses (DL), and while Brooks did have to shepherd the program through NCAA scholarship reduction, the sanctions didn’t start to bite into the program until 2004, and then get progressively worse as scholarship penalties accrued their wicked interest.
On top of that, he inherited a team in 2003 that had won seven games the year before, and returned most of its production. Three of his seven narrow losses came that season for a team that probably should have squeaked into bowl eligibility.
Overall, despite operating under the yoke of NCAA sanctions, Brooks would tally a total of eight Strong Wins (SW), Moderate Wins (MW), and Narrow Wins (NW). These three categories are what I would consider to be the bread and butter of successful programs. Dominant Wins (DW) will happen by virtue of playing cupcakes every year, but its the other wins that show you are beating conference foes and respectable non-conference teams.
Joker also won eight of these games, and Stoops won seven but five are Narrow Wins.
Joker Phillips (2010-2012)
Phillips’ first three years look solid compared to Brooks, but it’s a tad misleading if you don’t go below the surface.
Seven of his eight Dominant Losses, and four of the five Strong Losses, came in his third season after many of Brooks’ players had left the program. The program’s competitiveness dropped off following his first season. When the team lost starting in 2011, it usually lost in a blowout.
Mark Stoops (2013-2015)
The biggest change is the Strong Losses column has shifted to the Moderate Losses column. There’s little comfort to go from losing by three touchdowns to two touchdowns. That was a sign of progress in 2013, but UK should be past that.
Positive spin: Stoops has a 45% winning percentage in one-score games. Phillips and Brooks both were roughly at 33% winning percentage (Brooks would be at 47% for his career at UK). In close games, Stoops has won more games than his predecessors.
Still, that’s not enough. Ideally, there would be a value-added shift leftwards across all columns. At a minimum, the Strong Wins and Moderate Wins should be higher, and the Dominant Losses should be lower.
Speaking of losses, Stoops currently has eight Moderate Losses; Brooks only had seven at UK in his entire career. Stoops currently has eight Dominant Losses; Brooks retired with 11. When you couple that trajectory with how well the program has recruited on paper, and the amount spent on the football program recently, the return on investment would make Enron stock look attractive comparatively.
The optimists - and I count myself among their ranks - banked on this team winning six or more ball games largely based on the belief that talented players had matured, depth had improved, while taking advantage of mediocre SEC East competition.
It was a simple bet on the team having their light bulb moment. Things would finally click, just as they did in the 2007 season, and it would ignite another run.
The numbers were saying something different. Trends are trends for a reason. To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle, indeed.