Mark Stoops and his assistant coaches have done an amazing job on the recruiting trail since taking over the UK football reins in Lexington last winter. Remember pinching yourself after Jason Hatcher signed with Kentucky over USC — yes, the University of Southern California — and Louisville, the school that gobbles up Trinity stars like Hatcher with virtually no effort? That pinch didn’t wake you up from what you thought was a dream; it was real. Hatcher shocked the bluegrass by jumping on the Stoops train as it was just picking up speed.
Or what about that afternoon you frantically rubbed your eyes in disbelief the first time you read the headline, “UK Has The No. 1 Football Recruiting Class in America”? You checked, double-checked, and triple-checked the rankings, didn’t you? I did, too. Hell, I thought we’d see a unicorn in the winner’s circle at the Bluegrass Stakes before we’d see Kentucky sitting atop any football recruiting rankings. But, again, it’s real, folks. That really happened, and the train isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
It’s easy to credit Mark Stoops’ track record with defensive players or Neal Brown’s pass-happy Air Raid offense as two of the main reasons UK has a new and completely unfamiliar recruiting buzz this summer. The program hit rock bottom a year ago and the new staff is using that to sell players on the opportunity to ‘come be a hero’ and tow an SEC football team from the gutter, too. All three are go-to tactics in the new and improved UK football recruiting manual, but after a conversation today with Vince Marrow, UK’s recruiting wizard, the real reason this new level of talent keeps rolling into Kentucky is right in front of your eyes. It’s you. It’s the person next to you. It’s that balding gentleman next to him and that crazy lady with handcrafted Tim Couch mittens next to him. It’s the fans. It’s Big Blue Nation.
BBN has had its low points, though, and Marrow is well aware of last season’s game against Vanderbilt and the despicable turnout in the seats of Commonwealth Stadium that day, Kentucky football’s darkest afternoon. The fans have since moved past it and embraced this new brand of UK football with anticipation and excitement, but that day still haunts the program, or tries to, at least, in the high schools and living rooms of UK’s targeted players. Marrow said other schools use that game to recruit against Kentucky, asking them, ‘Why would you want to go there? There’s no tradition there.’ They show recruits photos with 2,000 fans in the stands and tell them that’s what they have to look forward to if they go to Kentucky, Marrow says. But he knows the negative recruiting is out there; he knows all the tactics; and he knows the positive impact Big Blue Nation has when things are moving in the right direction.
“There were fifty-something-thousand people here for the spring game,” he reminded reporters on Monday. “We had mostly top recruits in from all over. That’s what sealed it. It was the fans here in Kentucky.”
And that negative recruiting, the antagonists telling recruits they have no one to play for at Kentucky?
“Now, those people don’t have anything to say,” he said. “I know [Mark Stoops]’s plan. He hired two great coordinators. The staff he put together, I’m not worried about that. This thing will get done and it will get done soon.”
So keep on keeping on, Big Blue Nation. The resurgence of your enthusiasm and passion for Kentucky football is driving recruiting and the staff not only realizes it, but relies on it. You, too, are recruiting for Kentucky, even if you’re unaware you’re doing it. There’s noise coming from the Kentucky football program, it’s booming, and the kids are listening.
Like Vince said, this thing will get done. It’ll turn around. And it will happen soon.