I‘m pleased to announce that for once, Mark Story and I are in agreement. That’s something that happens so rarely, it’s worth noting. For some cosmic reason, every time Story puts fingers to keyboard, I find something major in his article that either looks nonsequitur or is just plain disagreeable. But not today.
Story writes that Kentucky was much better off hiring an up-and-comer as coach than searching for the big name, and while Mark Stoops hasn’t exactly proven himself as a home-run hire just yet, the team performance this season has been ahead of schedule, and the defense in particular has looked transformed. We all know that Stoops was a defensive coordinator before he was UK’s head coach, so it’s fair to assume that Stoops’ credentials from Florida State’s outstanding defensive teams is a major factor in the metamorphosis.
If you are among that segment of Kentucky football backers who have long worshiped at the altar of Hiring The Big Name Head Coach, the strongest support for your argument will be wearing a visor in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
There have been innumerable people who have argued repeatedly that Kentucky could’ve hired Steve Spurrier and didn’t. My recollection of that time was different, I think we had just hired a head coach when Spurrier became available. A quick perusal of the Internet supports me on this — Rich Brooks was hired in December of 2002, and Spurrier was with the Washington Redskins (yes, we will be using the team nickname without reservation here) until December of 2003. I suppose we could have fired Brooks after one year on the job, but back then, that was only done in cases of NCAA violations, criminal behavior or moral turpitude. So if we assume Spurrier would have been inclined to consider Kentucky, the timing was unfortunately not in our favor.
But Story has it the way I do:
The odds of luring a Saban or a Spurrier to UK have always been beyond astronomical.
Kentucky’s best chance of meaningful football success has been identifying a potentially high-level head coach on his way up the ladder — which could be what UK has finally achieved in Mark Stoops.
You’ll need to read the whole article to get the fullness of his reasoning, but I think this is exactly the right conclusion. Kentucky is not an attractive job for an established coach not on the downward side of his career arc, and Spurrier was manifestly not at that point when he became available in 2003.
One of these days, Kentucky may well become a destination job for football. At one time, it arguably was, but those days are so long gone that very few even remember them. Kentucky once had the biggest of big-name coaches — Paul "Bear" Bryant — but at the time he was the head coach at UK, he was an up-and-comer, too.
I think most Kentucky fans would be okay with being a stepping stone in football, and for the foreseeable future, I think that’s what we are. With the SEC being so powerful and so high-profile, that’s not a horrible position to be in, either, since quality up-and-coming coaches are always going to want to "make their bones" at a school like Kentucky to open up possibilities for the Bigger, Better Job. Certainly James Franklin did that at stepping stone Vanderbilt, and I doubt Vandy fans would pass on the success he brought just to have a longer-tenured coach there. Winning, in the end, is the most important thing.
I think most UK fans are realistic — if Mark Stoops has major success here, he’s likely to begin looking for the Bigger, Better Job, and who could blame him? The problem with being a stepping stone is twofold: Continuity and the occasional bad hire (and we know recently what that latter looks like). Unlike basketball, Kentucky football has yet to make itself into the kind of place that the Steve Spurriers of the world would seriously consider, which places us in a position of coaching development. It doesn’t have to stay this way, and never say never, but for now, I think that’s where we are.
Which brings me to the question and the subject of the poll below — which would you prefer; an up-and-comer, or an experienced coach on the backside of his career path? Yes, dear reader, I know most of you would prefer the Spurriers and Saban, but we are taking that off the table for this experiment.