As we close on the first week of the Mark Stoops era at Kentucky, some reflection is due. While we of course don’t know for certain whether Stoops will be successful, it is looking more and more like Kentucky hit as close to a home run as it could hope for with his hire. From day one, we have seen in Stoops, a coach who is ready and determined to take Kentucky to a successful tier in the SEC, while adding much needed new life to the program. He has committed the program to defense and has already shown a desire to build a staff that will make recruiting, the toughest part of the job at Kentucky, a priority for success. Even though he has yet to coach a game or even have a practice, Stoops has energized the UK fan base to a level that we have not seen in at least a decade as fans for the first time in a number of years, look forward to a new football season with something other than dread.
Two weeks ago however, the notion that the UK fan base could be unified and excited about any head coach seemed a pipe dream. From the moment Bobby Petrino’s father told reporters that his son was interested in the job, a fan base split seemed inevitable. Barnhart was never going to hire Petrino (and it looks like no other major AD would either) and a strong group of fans couldn’t imagine any other coach being acceptable. A split verdict on a new hire seemed a certainty. But then, to his credit, Barnhart found the one coach that could heal the divide and unify the Kentucky faithful towards the future. While reporters and fans craved public information, Barnhart went about his business in private, with nary a word leaking out. While fans became panicked over the group of has-beens that reporters incorrectly leaked out as candidates (remember the day it was reported that Phillip Fulmer was about to be hired?), Barnhart stayed calm and kept to his plan and search process. And while everyone (myself included) derided the attractiveness of the UK job opening, Barnhart found the one coach who was supremely interested in the job and confident he could win here. Simply put, while most believed Barnhart’s search was a train wreck, it was actually being handled masterfully, to highly successful results.
A number of Barnhart decisions were well-planned, but the best decision made was to begin the process early. While three SEC job openings could have been predicted, the openings at NC State, Purdue and California were a bit less obvious. By getting out early, Barnhart was able to select his top choice from a list of Kentucky-tier candidates before any other school could get on board. The three coaches hired at those schools (from Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois and Kent State) were all considered by Kentucky and one of them (Sonny Dykes) reached the “top 5” stage. But Barnhart didn’t have to wait to compete with these other programs, or enter a bidding war for his coach’s services, because he made the painful decision to cut ties with Joker early and get the process started early. That more than anything else, assured the successful hire in the end.
Now after the SEC musical chairs have stopped, Kentucky has a coach that is arguably on the level of the better programs that were also looking. Can anyone say with certainty that Bret Beliema, Gus Malzahn and Butch Jones are better hires than Mark Stoops? From a production standpoint, Arkansas getting Wisconsin’s Bret Beliema is clearly a stronger hire, as he has been to three Rose Bowls over the past three seasons. But do we know for certain that his brand of Big Ten football will work in the SEC? It remains to be seen. Butch Jones is making Tennessee fans’ heads explode with anger. He was one of three finalists for the UK job (along with Stoops and Mike McIntyre), but when UK asked him if he would be willing to accept if offered (something asked to all three candidates), Jones said he wanted to wait and see about the UT job. Kentucky was confident enough about Stoops (who was probably the top choice anyway) to not engage in that waiting game and go ahead and make the selection. Now that coach, one who was considered on the same, or lower, tier than UK’s new coach, will lead a program that believes itself to be one of the nation’s best. And finally, Gus Malzahn, who has been a head coach for one year and had a successful coordinator run thanks to a man named Cam Newton, is heading Auburn. If given the choice straight up, there is no question I would take Mark Stoops over him at either program. Thus Mitch Barnhart, dealing with the worst job of the four by a large margin, somehow ended up with a coach, depending on your criteria, either close to the same level or better, than the one selected by the three more storied programs. That is a home run.
Not everything Mitch Barnhart does is perfect. He has a long ways to go in fundraising and relating to the UK football donors/the fan base in general. He can make flippant statements that rightly cause anger amongst the fans and I have often thought that his decisions on tone are baffling. But when it comes to managing an Athletic Department and hiring coaches, his record is pretty solid. And it looks as if in this case, despite dire predictions to the contrary, he has done it once again. For that he should be commended, whether it be by his so-called “mouthpiece”, or a random sports blogger.