In Joker Phillips’ last year at Kentucky, it was reported just over 4,000 fans “filled” the stands for the annual UK Football Spring Game. As you can see in the photo above, even that number was a stretch.
During the Missouri game that season, I was approached at a Buffalo Wild Wings by a bystander questioning my team of choice. “It’s Kentucky football…,” he said. “Why are you watching that garbage? Do you just enjoy suffering?”
It wasn’t to poke fun or spark a heated debate. It was out of pity.
At the time, I laughed it off, but they were absolutely right. Kentucky lost that game 33-10, just one of the team’s ten losses on the year. Fan support was at an all-time low, the football facilities were among the worst in the nation, and top recruits wanted nothing to do with the Wildcats. The entire football program was in shambles.
No offense to Joker Phillips, he’s a great guy and really worked hard, but the roster he put out on the field in 2012 was on par with most FCS programs. In fact, even Western Kentucky players thought the team was an embarrassment.
(If that video doesn’t make you cringe, I don’t know what will.)
When Mark Stoops took over the following year, over 50,000 fans packed Commonwealth Stadium for the Spring Game.
For what reason? Why would 50,000 fans fill a stadium for a team they knew darn well was not competing for anything but an SEC East participation trophy that season?
There was hope.
On National Signing Day, Mark Stoops, Vince Marrow, and Eddie Gran joined Matt on KSR to discuss the day’s events and the optimism surrounding the program. Matt asked Marrow the difference between Wednesday’s National Signing Day and the one back in 2013.
His response: “When we first got here, we sold a dream.”
If you think back to Stoops’ first recruiting class, Za’Darius Smith signed with Kentucky over schools like Texas A&M, Texas, Florida State, and Auburn without even visiting campus. It came as a shock to Kentucky fans, as no one expected Mark Stoops’ first football commitment at UK to come from a four-star freak of nature defensive end standing 6’7, 250 lbs. It turned heads nationally.
That class followed up with guys like Jojo Kemp, Jeff Badet, Jason Hatcher, Marcus McWilson, and Ryan Timmons signing with UK, moving the Wildcats into the top 30 of the final recruiting rankings in 2013.
Stoops’ first team at UK went 2-10, yet the coaching staff somehow managed to sign an absolutely ridiculous class in 2014. At one point in time, they were considered the best class in the entire nation.
The class finished with 28 signees, 15 of which rated as four-stars by at least one recruiting service.
At the time, I had fans tell me “Stoops has to be paying these guys. There’s no way he can get four-stars to Kentucky like this.”
But they didn’t. They didn’t need to.
These recruits were told not to pay attention to the win/loss column in the first year, rather focus on the physical progress of the team and the momentum surrounding the program.
UK safety Mike Edwards told KSR, “When they were recruiting me, they said the team was going to struggle that first year. They understood the challenges from the start. But they said from there, progress will be made every year and we’d become competitors in the SEC. Our entire recruiting class had so much faith in the coaching staff, and they’ve followed through on their promises. We’re starting to see those rewards.”
A $126-million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium was well underway, and construction of a $45-million state-of-the-art practice facility began soon thereafter. When both projects were completed, Kentucky’s football facilities were among the best in the entire nation.
Progress didn’t stop at just eye-candy and materialistic flair. It translated onto the football field.
Stoops led Kentucky to their first seven-win season since 2009, and four SEC wins for the first time since 2006. A win over No. 9 Louisville featuring the Heisman winner at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium punched a ticket to the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly known as the Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville, FL.
Again, the progress didn’t stop there.
On Wednesday, Mark Stoops and his staff signed the greatest recruiting class in UK football history, even better than the jaw-dropping 2014 class in the eyes of both Stoops and Marrow.
In his post-NSD presser, Stoops said, “It’s our best class. Period.”
Lynn Bowden politely declined an offer from Ohio State leading up to Signing Day. Josh Paschal had to tell Alabama, Clemson, and Penn State he wasn’t interested. JaVonte Richardson turned down schools like Michigan and Michigan State.
Some of these guys had ridiculous offer sheets, but Kentucky never flinched. It may be a “dirty business” according to Stoops, but he put up a fight against the baddest dudes in college football. In most of those fights, he won.
We can even go to the bottom of the list where you’ll find Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald. This kid was considered by many to be a “reach” and a “project” in this recruiting class for Kentucky, yet he had an offer from Florida and had schools like Florida State and Penn State sniffing around late last week.
Back in the Joker Phillips era at UK, Abadi-Fitzgerald would have been considered the gem of any recruiting class. The term “diamond in the rough” would have been thrown around, and fans would be enamored by a 6’7, 250 lbs. monster. Back then, UK’s “diamonds in the rough” had offers from schools like Toledo, Kent State, and Miami (OH). Today, Kentucky casually “takes” a guy with interest from the nation’s best.
Kentucky is in position to take on “projects” because the team is absolutely stacked with talent top to bottom. They are in position to take risks because they have dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s elsewhere at positions of need.
That’s the difference between the new era of Kentucky football and the old.
Ask Josh Paschal and his father about the difference between the old and new era of UK Football. Before, Paschal didn’t even have Kentucky listed in his final ten schools, and his father originally scoffed at the idea of his son playing at UK. After Marrow got Paschal to visit against Georgia, he called his father and said, “Dad, it’s not what you think down here. It’s not what it used to be.” That visit alone sold him.
The hump that seemed so impossible to get over at times has finally been conquered. After coming in with a bottomless pit of adversities, the UK staff has the puzzle pieces firmly in place for the program to take the next major step up.
Next season, nearly all of Kentucky’s starters are back and depth is at an all-time high. Redshirts are ready to come in the rotation and make an impact.
Eddie Gran has the offense moving the best it has in years. There will be an impressive quarterback battle this spring between Drew Barker, Stephen Johnson, and Gunnar Hoak. Benny Snell and A.J. Rose will be a dynamic duo in the backfield.
The defense showed a massive turnaround after Mark Stoops took over, and Matt House will be able to come in and continue to run the same schemes.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
For a program many thought could never reach new heights and would always take the backseat to Kentucky basketball, we’re seeing those barriers crumble down right in front of us.
Mark Stoops built this program on dreams and promises of change. In four years, he has turned those dreams and promises into reality.
“We’re just getting started, bro.”