LEXINGTON — Mark Stoops now knows what it feels like to be part of the Big Blue Nation.
The former Florida State defensive coordinator arrived in Lexington Sunday and got a taste of the Bluegrass with the red carpet treatment during his introductory press conference at the Nutter Fieldhouse adjacent to Commonwealth Stadium, where he will coach his first game as coach of the Wildcats next fall.
The school band played as he entered the fieldhouse, and fans inside the facility cheered his arrival.
Those in attendance — current and former players and their families — clapped and cheered as he made his way to the podium and joined University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto and athletics director Mitch Barnhart.
“So this is what the Big Blue Nation is all about right here?” he said. “I’ve been hearing a lot about it.”
Stoops was hired a week ago today, but wasn’t made official until Sunday, less than 24 hours after Florida State defeated Georgia Tech 21-15 in the Atlantic Coast Championship game Saturday night.
It was indeed a new beginning for a program that hasn’t reached the postseason in the past two years after making five consecutive appearances under previous coaches Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips. In his first season, Phillips guided the Wildcats to a bowl appearance, but compiled a 7-17 record during his final two years, resulting in his dismissal as coach at his alma mater last month.
Since then, Barnhart had scanned the coaching circuit for a replacement and hired the defensive-minded Stoops to build a program that “competes at a championship level.” He was given a five-year contract for $11 million, a pact also packed with plenty of incentives.
“That’s what we’ve hired this guy to do,” Barnhart said. “We want him to help get us to Atlanta and pursue SEC championships and help us play on New Year’s Day. We dream of that for our players, we dream of that for our fans. We want to support those efforts to get that done.”
Stoops was raised in a coaching environment and has been around the game of football all of his life. His father served as prep football coach at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown Ohio, Ohio, while his brother Bob Stoops serves as coach at Oklahoma. A longtime assistant coach in the collegiate ranks, Stoops is eager to establish his own identity.
“I cannot tell you how excited I am to be your football coach,” he said Sunday. “I’m highly motivated to build this program to national prominence. There will be no magic wands to getting this done. We’re going to do it with very much of a blue-collar mentality. We’ll work every day, be accountable to what we do. Our players will have tremendous character and we’re going to win in the institution and we are going to win with a lot of class.”
Stoops, who approached Barnhart about the opening, didn’t think twice about the offer to coach the Wildcats and believes the school can become successful despite competing against national powerhouses such as Alabama, Georgia and Florida as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Stoops added the climb to national prominence will involve a step-by-step process.
“We’re going to embrace the process,” he said. “We’re not too worried about the results right now, we’re worried about the process. That’s getting my message to the players tomorrow morning, then getting out there and putting together a quality staff and moving forward.”
Big Blue Nation impacted Stoops’ decision to take on the job at Kentucky, an opportunity that he embraces with open arms.
“We understand it’s going to be a great challenge, but that’s what we embrace,” he said. “We embrace the process.”
That process began Sunday.