Sometimes everything you were certain was true crumbles right in front of you. That line could easily be the start of a boring story of someone’s monumental life change or it could also be for something far more important, college sports. And the last couple of weeks have clearly shown me, everything I thought about Kentucky football could very well be wrong. The past few weeks worth of knowledge culminated today when Kentucky brought in its highest rated recruiting class in school history. Rivals ranks the class at #28 (I know other sites have it slightly lower, but one has to choose some site to follow and I will pick Rivals) with the previous high a #38 ranked class in 2006. Even though Mark Stoops only had eight weeks to do it, he found a way to assemble not just a good class, but the best in school history. That is completely mind-blowing. To get an understanding of how much greater Stoops’ performance is than average, take a look at where the commitments Joker had assembled, but Stoops decided were not good enough for UK, ended up on Signing Day (h/t to Gyero):
Jalen Battle – Illinois St.
Ander Bodkin – Jacksonville University
Jake Boynton – Marshall?
Darren Dowdell – East Carolina
Jevontey Smith – Middle Tennessee St
Deangelo Yancey – Purdue
David Washington – Unknown
The above list is not meant to criticize the kids or even Joker Phillips. Most would agree that prior to Stoops, Joker was the best recruiter UK has had since at least the Fran Curci era. But in eight short weeks, Stoops has gone from players that ended up at Illinois State and Jacksonville to beating the best of the best head-on for players. Take a look at some of the recruiting wins:
Ryan Timmons — Cats beat Ohio State and Florida
Jason Hatcher — Cats beat USC and Louisville
Marcus McWilson — Cats flip him from Nebraska
Zadarius Smith — Cats beat Texas, Texas A&M and Auburn
And the list goes on. Even the “mid-level” Stoops recruits had offers not from MAC schools, but from legitimate BCS-caliber competition. He beat out West Virginia, a team that was a darling of college football for a good part of the last four years, for FIVE players over the last four weeks. That is simply phenomenal. And that has led to scenes like the one below, where Ryan Timmons did something he never thought possible even three months ago, putting on a UK blue hat:
Timmons is a player that if he lived in any state besides Kentucky, would be considered one of the best 75 players in America. And Mark Stoops was able to convince him and others that Kentucky is a rising giant in college football. Take the case of Jason Hatcher. The Trinity Defensive Lineman admitted that he had almost no interest in Kentucky before Stoops arrival. He thought Kentucky played old-school, boring football and the chances of success there were, both as a team and personally, were almost zero. Then, Stoops and company arrived, and Hatcher turned down the advances of the West Coast and USC, ignored the ranting of the suddenly paranoid home city Louisville fans, and came to be part of something new and special. It takes a certain kind of salesperson to make something like that happen. Even more impressively, Stoops did a similar sales job with McWilson, who decommitted from NEBRASKA to go to Lexington. The idea of making that type of impression, with an out-of-state kid, is unbelievable and illustrative of how special what we are witnessing truly is. McWilson for his part, celebrated today by tweeting out his picture with Ashley Judd, showcasing that for the first time in recent memory, UK football recruits are stars too:
The last point is the most critical. The national media and Kentucky football fans are “all-in” now and excited/optimistic about the UK football program. Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote his national Signing Day column about SEC football recruiting and focused on Kentucky in particular. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit praised Mark Stoops and the Cats on television and said their performance was one of the stories of the day. But more importantly, the fans have totally bought in. Take KSR today. The final numbers aren’t in yet, but we are on pace to have one of the three most visited days in the site’s history (along with the day after the National Championship and the day the Harrison Twins committed). In years past, Signing Day has been a slight bump, but nothing worth writing home about. This year, it produces record traffic and contends for our biggest day ever. Why? Because fans care and are energized. Our radio stream shut down today for a few minutes due to traffic, not because people wanted to discuss a mundane win over South Carolina, but because they needed to know if Jason Hatcher would really be a Cat.
Which brings me back to my original point. Last year, when interviewing Joker Phillips at Media Day, he got on me rather hard about my lack of belief in the team. When I told him that I had made a $1,000 bet that UK would win five games (a bet that looks like charity now), he lectured me that I should bet twice that and believe in the team. I told him I did, but my heart wasn’t really in it. But now, for the first time maybe ever, I really and truly believe that Kentucky can be successful in football. I have always been a fan, but skeptical of the team’s ability to compete with the many structural impediments to success in the SEC in this state. While those impediments certainly do exist, Mark Stoops has come in and shattered my belief as to whether they can be overcome. He has taken what I thought was a weakness, and made it into a strength. Whereas Kentucky football used to engage in recruiting battles with this result:
Now Mark Stoops and company see the difficulties and turn them into benefits. Case in point. I always thought that Kentucky being the northern-most school in the SEC hurt the Wildcats when competing versus the teams in the South with more top talent in their state. But today, UK Coach Vince Marrow, who does a lot of recruiting for Stoops, says Kentucky’s location is a benefit. “Being the northern-most state in the SEC, I consider Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky as a place where we have an advantage over every other SEC school. We are closer. Then when recruiting against Ohio State, Michigan and the Big Ten, I sell getting a chance to play in the best conference in the country. That way those areas we can claim as our ground, no matter who we are going against.” Its simply a new way of thinking, but one that clearly works. Mark Stoops said today that Kentucky was going to be in a lot of recruiting battles with a lot of good teams and “we are going to win our fair share of them.” After today, I totally believe him.
With all of that said, I won’t get too ahead of myself. This staff must translate the talent in the recruiting arena to success on the field. Even with the highest rated class in school history, the Cats still ranked 13th out of the 14 teams in the SEC today and Mark Stoops has yet to win one game in Blue. However, after watching the faxes come pouring in today and talking to the coaches this afternoon, I firmly believe real success is coming to Kentucky football. This is a young, hungry group of coaches who seem genuinely excited and ready to make it happen in Lexington. More than one said that a “sleeping giant was about to be awoken” and an energy permeated the building that I never felt even during the best days of the Brooks/Phillips era. You can tell when a person not only talks a big game because they are supposed to, but believes it because they know it to be to true. This group believes.
After Mark Stoops came on my radio show a few weeks ago, he thanked us for having him on and said that he appreciated the energy we had for the football team. He told me that he had been amazed at the power of the Big Blue Nation and the “how much the people in this state want to win.” I asked him about some of our rivals and how we would compete and he immediately made it clear his philosophy about the coming years in Kentucky football. Looking me directly in the eye he said, “This is just the beginning. We will back down from no one and people are going to like whats coming.” I loved the confidence I saw from Stoops then, knowing that we finally had a coach with real contagious confidence and swagger. Now two weeks later, after watching what he accomplished in recruiting I not only love the mindset, I am finally also a believer