I think back to the South Carolina game in 2016 and all of the whispers surrounding the program at the time. Kentucky had just lost in devastating fashion to Southern Miss, followed by an absolute beatdown in The Swamp. After an underwhelming 5-7 season the year before, the Big Blue Nation wanted answers from head coach Mark Stoops right then, not professional coach-speak.
Not everyone wanted him fired, but absolutely no one was satisfied. With a loss at home to the Gamecocks, who knows what would have happened, and more specifically, who would be roaming the Kentucky sidelines each week going forward.
ESPN’s Marty Smith said on the Paul Finebaum Show back in July that Stoops himself told him he would be fired with a loss to Mississippi State later that season.
“Either I’m winning, or I’m fired,” Smith said. “He knew it. I’m winning or I’m fired.”
Luckily for him, Austin MacGinnis drilled the 51-yard field goal as time expired to win the game, ultimately saving Stoops’ job. It wasn’t his first major win as Kentucky’s head coach, as he managed to top South Carolina in the Grove St. Party game in 2014, a ranked Missouri team in 2015, and South Carolina again that same year. But at the time, the victory over the Bulldogs was easily the biggest and most crucial of Stoops’ tenure.
And then he followed it up with the Louisville victory against Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson on his own field, a win fans will hold close to their hearts forever. It swung momentum back to the football program when no one expected it from both a rivalry standpoint and a pure talent standpoint. They killed two birds with one stone.
Just one season later, they knocked off South Carolina on the road, followed by Tennessee at home. You go down the list, and Stoops has had some darn impressive victories and overall moments since he got to Lexington in 2013.
But he always had the monkey on his back with Florida. He beat all of Kentucky’s biggest rivals and defeated all of the juggernaut coaches, but he just couldn’t top the Gators. It was the ultimate elephant in the room that just wouldn’t go away.
Until last night.
By knocking off Florida 27-16, Stoops cemented himself in Kentucky football history. It truly was a program-defining moment, and Stoops deserves every ounce of the praise coming his way.
When Stoops arrived in 2013, he told recruits to ignore the team’s final record in his first season. He knew he had arguably the worst roster top-to-bottom in all of college football, and instead, he wanted recruits to look at the overall slow, but steady progress of the program. Fan optimism, individual player improvements, facility upgrades, etc. were key points. In reality, he had nothing of substance to show recruits other than what-ifs and why-nots. Why not Kentucky? Why can’t we turn what has been deemed a basketball-only program into one with an upper-level football program?
He built this football program on nothing more than a dream, and those dreams turned into reality last night. Say what you want about past play calls and coaching mistakes, and he’ll admit there are plenty of them, all of that was forgiven when that clock struck zero in Gainesville. He won games against Louisville and Tennessee, built a streak of its own against South Carolina, and knocked off several ranked opponents along the way, but none of it mattered in the long run until they took down the Gators. Kentucky was never going to earn respect nationally until they ended the 31-game losing streak.
And after several close calls and heartbreaks, Mark Stoops has finally lifted the weight off of his and the entire program’s shoulders.
It was the fourth-longest losing streak in NCAA history. Boston’s “Amanda” was the No. 1 pop song in America. Crocodile Dundee was the top movie in the box-office. Gas was 94 cents a gallon. Mark Stoops was a sophomore defensive back at Iowa. Dan Mullen was 14 years old. Florida went through seven head coaches in the span of 31 years, and every single one of them went undefeated against the Cats. Steve Spurrier once ran up the scoreboard in 1994 with a final of 73-7.
And we never have to hear about those meaningless facts again.
Stoops has done what Joker Phillips, Rich Brooks, Guy Morriss, Hal Mumme, and Bill Curry could not do. Stanley Boles, Fred Murphy, Harry Gamage, Bear Bryant, Blanton Collier, Fran Curci, and Jerry Claiborne are the only coaches in UK history to beat Florida, and Stoops just added his name to that list. Dating back to 1917, just 17 teams in school history have beaten Florida, and this 2018 group just made it 18. Out of 21 total Kentucky coaches to face the Gators, Stoops is one of nine to take them down.
Recent history and 31-game losing streak aside, and that’s saying a lot, this victory put Stoops’ name among the all-time Kentucky greats. Not necessarily from a pure coaching skill perspective, as he’s just six years into his head coaching career and there is a lot to be learned. He only has a 42 percent record as a head coach thus far, after all. But with what he has built thus far and how close the team has come to taking that next step from above-average to good and beyond, he knocked down the one opponent that will allow him to make the jump. From where this program was when he got here to where it is now, and where it could be going forward, that stands for something.
No matter what happens in the future, Stoops’ name will always be attached to the historic streak coming to an end. And with the rollercoaster history of this program, that absolutely shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Now, analysts can focus on the fact that Stoops has led the program to back-to-back bowl appearances and raked in stellar recruiting classes top-to-bottom, not the streak. Fans now have nothing holding them back from believing in the program and jumping on the bandwagon. The entire coaching staff has gotten plenty of recruits to buy in already, but those that have been hesitant in the past now have nothing holding them back. The staff finally has that tangible sign of progress they didn’t have when they first arrived six years ago.
Stoops always wanted to take this program to heights it has never seen before, and he took that next major step forward last night.
It’s a long season, and the program as a whole can’t use this game as the benchmark for the season, but words can’t explain how massive this victory was on several levels.