November 29th, 2012

Mark Stoops and Direction of UK Football


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Mark Stoops and Direction of UK Football
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UK to ACC? Makes sense to this columnist

              Mitch Barnhart was so busy hiring a new football coach that you wonder if he missed an opportunity to leave the Southeastern Conference for the Atlantic Coast, thereby opening the door open for archrival Louisville to abandon the sinking Big East ship and make a life-changing move to the ACC.

           At first blush, it appears that Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is an excellent hire for UK. He has a terrific football pedigree (big brother Bob is the head coach at Oklahoma) and, at 45, he’s a veteran of several coaching staffs but still young enough to be around for as long as he and UK want each other.

           His selection of an offensive coordinator will be huge. He needs to get somebody who will install a wide-open, pro-style passing game that will showcase the talents of Max Smith or Patrick Towles, whichever one earns the starting quarterback job.

If Stoops can’t win immediately, you see, at least he can produce an entertaining product that will put all those AWOL Big Blue fannies back in the Commonwealth Stadium seats. The Cats also need to play a lot faster and be less predictable. 

Yet while Stoops gives a badly needed injection of hope to UK football, you also have to wonder if Barnhart shouldn’t have been on the phone to the ACC as soon as the news broke that Maryland was leaving its traditional home to join the Big Ten.

It was a given that U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich would work the phones hard in the wake of Maryland’s surprising decision. Having been rebuffed by the Big 12 in favor of West Virginia – a decision that still defies logic – the Cards appeared to have no other option except the Big East, where the menu of football-playing schools changes almost by the hour.

For quite awhile, the feeling here has been that the Big East eventually will revert to its original status as a basketball conference. It doesn’t take a genius, or even Digger Phelps, to figure out that the Catholic members, none of whom play football, might as well break away and form their own league, even adding the likes of Xavier, Dayton, or St. Louis.

When Syracuse and Pittsburgh left the Big East for the ACC, the league turned into the Titanic. TCU joined, then backed out. Boise State joined, but now is thinking of backing out. Rutgers left for the Big Ten. This left U of L bobbing in a life raft and looking for the Coast Guard, which, by the way, is one of the few schools not courted by the Big East.

When Maryland left, the intellectual snobs in the ACC were quick to point out that U of L is hardly in the same class, academically, as, say, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, and Miami. There also were misgivings about the size of U of L’s TV market, which is difficult to understand considering that the ACC has members located in such rural outposts as Blacksburg, Va., Clemson, S.C., and Durham, N.C.

But the ACC needed an exciting athletics program to fill the Maryland voice, and, thanks to the incredible building job done by Jurich over the last 15 years, few teams in D-I can match U of L’s facilities or its success in almost every sport. This season both the revenue sports, football and men’s basketball, have been ranked among the nation’s Top 20.

But what if Barnhart had called the ACC and told it that UK was interested?

As the mediocre football seasons have stacked up, year after year, since Paul “Bear” Bryant left UK in 1953, it has become clear that, for a lot of reasons, UK will never join Alabama, LSU, Florida and Georgia in the SEC’s upper echelon. Maybe Stoops can do what Blanton Collier, Charlie Bradshaw, John Ray, Fran Curci, Jerry Claiborne, Bill Curry, Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss, Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips couldn’t. Maybe he’ll be the guy who will do for UK what Bill Snyder has done for Kansas State.

But with all due respect to Stoops, history tells us otherwise, and that in itself is an excellent reason to leave the SEC for the ACC. Write this down: U of L’s chances of being a consistent member of the ACC’s upper echelon in football are far, far greater than UK’s chances in the SEC.

Conversely, of course, the ACC would be a step up for UK basketball. For several years now, the SEC has reverted to its old status of being as mediocre in hoops as it is daunting in football. So instead of having an annual stroll through the SEC, Coach John Calipari’s program would be playing a much tougher league schedule in the ACC.

For U of L, on the other hand, the ACC figures to be no tougher than the Big East has been. I expect Rick Pitino to be the most exciting New Yorker to hit the ACC since Frank McGuire left St. John’s in the early 1950s to coach North Carolina, which he took to an unbeaten season and the NCAA title in 1957.

The only possible reason for UK to prefer the SEC to the ACC is the financial windfall it gets every year from the SEC’s bowl and football TV contracts. That figure will only increase when the SEC starts its own network, as the Big Ten has done for several years.

Still, shouldn’t the money be less important than being competitive in football? The ACC has tie-ins with eight bowls. Only Florida State and Clemson have been consistent Top 20 teams in the last several years. Without spending a lot more money than it’s already spending, UK could be competitive in the ACC very quickly.

But Barnhart didn’t make the call and now U of L is better positioned than it has ever been. It has been a long, arduous climb from the old Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which was U of L’s home in the late 1940s, to the Big East. The trip included stops in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Metro, Conference USA, and, of course, the Big East. But now, finally, U of L has joined the ranks of the elite.

Although most U of L fans are wondering when the Duke basketball team will make its first appearance in the KFC Yum! Center, I’m looking forward to the Notre Dame football team’s first game in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

You may recall that, as a condition of joining the ACC as a member in all sports except football, Notre Dame agree to play five or six ACC teams every season. That means that, at some point, the Irish will come to Louisville to play before the city’s large Catholic community.

Who could have ever dreamed that?


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