A moment came during Sunday’s press conference introducing Mark Stoops as Kentucky’s new head football coach that temporarily took his mind away from a Nutter Fieldhouse packed with media and fans and back to a much simpler time prior to being in the spotlight.
As he was thanking UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and others responsible for granting his first opportunity to lead a program, Stoops flashed back to his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio.
“I really want to thank my father, who’s no longer with us, but a big part of who I am comes from how I grew up and with my father,” Stoops said. “He was a high school coach for over 30 years, a tremendous person.
“I think that’s where I started preparing to get to this position where I’m at right now, those days and those nights spending time with my father at Cardinal Mooney (High School). I spent many nights around him sitting at the kitchen table eating my dinner and watching my father watch film and using the refrigerator as his canvas. So I think that’s a big part of who I am.”
Ron Stoops was an assistant coach and defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney, and two of his older sons, Bob and Mike, had gone on to be head coaches at Oklahoma and Arizona. No doubt much of that mindset was passed along to his youngest son, Mark, who comes to Kentucky after spending the last three years as defensive coordinator at Florida State.
Stoops, 45, helped turn the Seminoles’ unit into one of the best in the country. He helped coach FSU to a 21-15 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday night in the ACC Championship Game before jumping on a jet to be introduced as the Wildcats’ new coach.
The same championship aspirations he held in Tallahassee come with him to Lexington, but Stoops knows the task at hand will not be an easy one. It will require some of that old-school work ethic passed along from his father.
“I cannot tell you how excited I am to be your football coach,” Stoops said. “I’m highly motivated to build this program to national prominence. There will be no magic wand to getting this done. We’re going to do it with very much a blue-collar mentality. We’re going to go to work each and every day. We’re going to be accountable and dependable in what we do. Our players are going to have tremendous character, we’re going to win in the institution, and we’re going to win with a lot of class.”
Barnhart, who began discussing the job opening after being approached by Stoops on Nov. 10, said he was quickly won over by the coach’s enthusiasm and detailed plan for helping UK football become a strong program.
“We have the greatest fans in all of college sports and the most passionate fan base around,” Barnhart said. “You deserve a football program that competes at a championship level, and that’s what we’ve hired this guy to do.
"It got down to one person we offered the job to, and that was Mark. He was spectacular in the process, very organized, has a plan. His recruiting ties were very, very important; you've got to have players. Everybody knows that."
Stoops signed an incentive-laden contract with UK that will pay him approximately $11 million over a five-year deal. He said he hopes to have a staff in place soon, but declined to talk about those positions at this time.
“I believe I can bring a strong staff that will help building and recruiting,” Stoops said. “I believe in this administration to the commitment they're willing to make to the football program. With recruiting, quality staff, development – develop the players that are here – that we can take it to another level.”
He did, however, drops some hints about what he'll be looking for on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
"We're going to have an offense that you guys are going to enjoy. I promise you that," Stoops said. "Where is Tim Couch at? Is he around here? We're going to have an offense you're going to be proud of. We'll get out there and rip it around it a little bit, we are going to throw it. You have to be creative.
"I'm a defensive guy. This is the SEC. It's a physical conference. I realize that. I want to be tough and I want to be physical. We have to build this foundation with great defense. There's no way around it. If you don't play great defense, you're not going to win consistently."
Stoops will be meeting with the UK players for the first time on Monday morning. A few of the Cats got to greet and shake hands with him during the ceremony at the Nutter Fieldhouse, but their first prolonged conversations will occur on Monday, when Stoops says the past will be put behind a team that has won only seven of its last 24 games.
“We're looking forward to going ahead,” he said. “I’m really not interested in what happened before. We will embrace the past, all the past great players, the past teams. But we're worried about going forward. We're going to do that.”