Is the state of Kentucky Big Enough For Strong and Stoops?

02/07/2013 11:25 AM

They’re both former defensive coordinators whose last names contain six letters and starts with an ‘S.’
But that’s where the similarities between Charlie Strong and Mark Stoops end. They wear different colors and have different agendas, and usually when those things clash, there are casualties.
Think about it. How many times in the UK-UofL rivalry has one coach gaining the upper hand cost the other coach his job?
Ron Cooper picked up a lot of juice by beating Kentucky in his first two tries. And if Cat fans weren’t already done with Bill Curry, they were definitely done after Cooper and the Cards whooped up on UK 38-14 in the 1996 season opener. Curry finished 1-10 was gone at the end of the year.
But Cooper couldn’t capitalize on the momentum of the two wins over Kentucky, and once Hal Mumme and the Air Raid hit Lexington, it was the beginning of the end for Coop. UK beat UofL 38-24 in the 1997 season opener, and like Curry, Cooper finished 1-10 and was gone at the end of the year.
Mumme doubled up new UofL coach John L. Smith 68-34 in the grand opening of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 1998, but Smith returned the favor and doubled up Mumme 56-28 at Commonwealth the following year. With tons of drama and a potential NCAA investigation hanging over the head of the UK program, John L. delivered what many believed to be the knockout blow to Mumme by winning an OT thriller to open 2000.
Bobby Petrino seemed on the verge of KO’ing Rich Brooks with four straight wins, but once Petrino skipped town, Brooks owned Steve Kragthorpe. Cardinal fans never forgave Kragthorpe for surrendering the program’s dominance over the Cats, and he was gone after three losses to UK in three seasons.
Enter Charlie Strong and Joker Phillips. I stood and watched as both men stood and shook hands at the podium during the Governor’s Cup Classic that preseason. And based on what I had seen to that point in the rivalry, I only drew one conclusion, “I don’t know which one it’ll be, but one of these guys is getting fired in four or five years.” It ended up being Phillips, and it only took three.
So now Stoops comes in, and he’s got to play catch-up. Louisville is a likely preseason Top 10 team with a Heisman Trophy candidate who did something UK hasn’t done in 27 years (beat Florida). But nothing closes a gap between two programs like talent, and Stoops is off to the perfect start on that front. His first UK recruiting class was ranked No. 27 in the nation by Rivals. Louisville, on the other hand, without a lot of specific needs and short on scholarships, finished ranked in the 50’s by most recruiting services.
Can a Kentucky coach and a Louisville coach succeed and survive simultaneously? Mumme and John L. were able to somewhat pull it off. The teams split the 1998 and 1999 games yet both had winning seasons and went to bowls.
There are a lot of variables at play with regards to Stoops and Strong, though. How long will the Stoops honeymoon period last? The Air Raid offense and recruiting will buy him at least a year, maybe two. But the fans will ultimately start wanting wins, regardless of who’s on the schedule.
And how long will Strong be around? Will he continue to be able to fend off top programs that will come after him year-after-year?
I do believe it can be done, that Strong can continue the momentum he’s built at UofL with Stoops also quickly bringing the UK program back to respectability with potential for even bigger things down the road.
Here’s why:
-Both coaches have unprecedented support from the administration. Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich is known for paying his coaches for a job well-done, and he just hooked Strong up with an eight-year extension at $3.7 million per year.
UK has long been accused of not investing enough into the football program, but athletics director Mitch Barnhart is all in with Stoops. He dished out big loot for Stoops to assemble his staff and has committed to make good on facility upgrades that have been in the works since the beginning of the Brooks regime.
-The state of Kentucky doesn’t produce a boatload of Division I prospects as it is. And for the past two decades, a good percentage of the blue-chippers opted for glamour programs such as Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, USC and others. The good thing about Strong and Stoops is that both guys are good enough to keep the top in-state talent at home. Stoops accomplished what some would consider a minor miracle by coming in and flipping Trinity’s Jason Hatcher away from USC in two months, and then beat out the likes of Ohio State and Florida for Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons.
Strong was able to reel in Trinity’s James Quick, one of the country’s top prep receivers and added a three-star quarterback in Lexington Catholic’s Kyle Bolin. He also has a commitment from Trinity junior Reggie Bonnafon, expected to be one of the best quarterback prospects in the 2014 class.
-Both have also established fertile out-of-state recruiting grounds. Strong will always be capable of going into Florida and plucking a couple of blue-chippers, and six of his 16 signees in the 2013 class hail from the Sunshine State. The Stoops name carries some weight in Ohio, as evidenced by UK going in and getting a pair of potential immediate impact defensive backs in Jaleel Hytchye (Cincinnati) and Youngstown’s Marcus McWilson, who had been committed to Nebraska.
-And to be honest, one’s got to wonder just how much longer this series will go on. They won’t say it out loud, but privately there are some in the UK administration who have wanted out of the UofL game for years. For starters, the opportunity to replace the Cards with an annual guaranteed home game is attractive from a financial standpoint. And with the expanded SEC now more brutal than ever, it’s attractive from a won-loss standpoint as well (If the SEC ever goes to an expanded nine-game schedule, the UK-UofL game is a wrap. Count on it).
There’s also a sentiment among long-time UK football followers that the Louisville series has done nothing but help the Cards elevate their program. If I had a dollar for every Wildcat fan I’ve heard say, “We helped them build that damn stadium…”
One of the worries UK had about ending the series was facing PR backlash, especially since Louisville had no interest in discontinuing the series. But the Cards might be a little more receptive to the idea now. With the Cards moving to the ACC in 2014,they will have an attractive enough home slate that they won’t need UK to sell its season-ticket packages nearly as much. And while the ACC isn’t the SEC, it will be an upgrade. The ‘Ville might decide it could be best to go the route of a guaranteed home game as well. Not having to worry about fan discontent for losing to your arch-rival can do a lot for a coach’s shelf life.
I’ll be watching Strong and Stoops when they take the podium at this year’s Governor’s Cup Classic. But unlike that day in 2010 with Joker and Charlie, I won’t be thinking “One of these guys is going to get fired.”


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