Nobody can argue that the current state of the program under Mark Stoops is leap years ahead of what Joker Phillips made UK football. Despite going without a bowl for each of his 3 years, the actual football product is clearly better. No doubt recruiting has improved. These are things that I don’t think can be disputed. And it’s why a guy with a 12-24 record is getting a 4th year and probably a 5th year no matter what happens this season. But I’ll be honest. I am significantly more frustrated with the current football program than I ever was with Joker Phillips. It’s not really even close.
It became clear pretty quickly that the program was going down with Joker. The talent was not progressing, the in-game coaching was pathetic, the players seemed disinterested and the effort was lacking. Joker was basically a dead man walking his final 2 years. But, that kind of made it easy to be a fan. We sucked, we knew we sucked, we knew we were going to continue to suck as long as Joker was the coach. And while you obviously want to be proud of your football program, if they are going to be bad then may as well be as bad as Joker made it because then it’s almost funny. It doesn’t bother you as much, if at all, to lose.
Three years in, I know now what Mark Stoops has most working against him when it comes to fan support. The biggest issue with Stoops’ program is he will NEVER let the program suck but he hasn’t shown the ability to make us excited either. The program is not going to have a 2-3 win year under Stoops. He has brought in a caliber of talent that is going to get 4-5 wins guaranteed every year. But, for whatever reason, Stoops and his players have been lacking that ability to get over the hump and become competitive for 12 games a year. And that’s the problem. The problem is we all KNOW that UK has some talent. We’ve seen it. We all know that Boom Williams is UK’s best running back in many years. Is Chris Westry the best cornerback in my lifetime? Maybe. 4-star recruits are coming to Lexington now. The off-season is where Mark Stoops and his staff feast. Unfortunately, the actual season is where they have famined.
I went to 2 games last season, Florida and Louisville. Those games were the absolute epitome of the Mark Stoops tenure. Both of those games were winnable. And not only winnable, but EASILY winnable. Florida threw for 125 yards for the entire game and didn’t score a point in the 2nd half. UK led Louisville by 21 points! But of course we know how both games ended. To be fair to Stoops, he isn’t the first coach to have this problem. Rich Brooks had a little bit of this issue too. But Brooks’ best teams still took advantage of a key chance each season AND they were beating Louisville on a regular basis. Stoops hasn’t done that.
So, we now enter the 4th year. And unfortunately, whether or not he has his best team this year, his schedule has never been harder. Road games at Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisville. A sneaky difficult home game against Southern Miss. There are probably only 2 LOCKS on the schedule. But, like I said, UK will win 4 games just because they have talent. Probably Southern Miss and Vanderbilt. But whether or not my frustration continues with UK football will have nothing to do with those 4 games. It will have to do with South Carolina, Mississippi State at home and Missouri and Louisville on the road. Those are the toss-ups or close to toss-ups. South Carolina and MSU are rebuilding. Mizzou has a new coach and Louisville is the rival. These are the games that we have to take advantage of. These are the games that UK has lost over the last 2 years.
I really want to have faith in this program. I really do. But I also have eyes. I have seen what has been numerous blown opportunities over the last 2 seasons. Both of those years could have easily been bowl seasons. But UK never took advantage of chance to take the next step. And now after having 100% fan support for most of his tenure, I think Mark Stoops is on shaky ground with the fans. Not to lose his job but for fans to keep showing up. With that said, one season of 7-5 or 8-4 and UK fans will be over the moon. It doesn’t take much for us to be thrilled with football. And we know we have enough to make that happen. But we had enough last year too and went 5-7. And that’s what makes the program so frustrating right now.