Kentucky will open the season one of six teams in the Southeastern Conference ranked in the USA Today Preseason Coaches’ Poll. The coaches considered Kentucky the 21st best team in the nation, grouped in with top-ranked Alabama, No. 3 Georgia, Texas A&M (No, 7), Arkansas (No. 23) and Ole Miss (24) from the powerful SEC.
A decade ago, when Mark Stoops took over a program that had fallen on tough times following a successful stint during the end of the Rich Brooks era, the Kentucky coach envisioned taking the program to new heights.
It took time and didn’t happen overnight, but Stoops began establishing a culture within the program. The foundation was built on physicality and toughness, creating a winning culture.
“There’s climate, and then there’s culture,” he said. “You can change a climate rather quickly, and a culture takes a long time to engrave, and if we do that and we do it correctly, then you can sustain the highs and the lows and the turnover, whether it’s players or coaches or anybody.
"So I don’t look at it like that. I always look at it like it’s an advantage, and I have great respect and appreciation for all the former players and coaches. But it just put us in a position to do what we’re doing now.”
Every student-athlete who has played under Stoops has had a big part in laying the groundwork for other teams to follow. Stoops hasn’t forgotten the sacrifices each team has made during a tenure that's nearing the end of its first decade.
“(We have) very strong leadership on this team, and that has a lot to do with the foundation of the players in previous years,” he said.
Stoops admitted his tenure has “gone by very fast at times and very slow at times” but “I feel very privileged to be here for nine years, going on 10, and really excited about this football team.”
“I really feel like our program is in a position that we’re very confident in what we’re going to do,” he said.
Looking back at the previous nine years, Stoops has enjoyed several milestones and has guided the Wildcats to a pair of double-digit win seasons, feats that were unattainable by his five predecessors.
“There are many good moments, many good moments. … In football and probably in most businesses, we learn by mistakes. Those scars really stick out to us. So we try not to ever let those same mistakes happen again. I remember a lot of those. I seem to remember those more than the wins.”
Two wins away from surpassing Paul “Bear” Bryant as the school’s all-time winningest football coach going into his 10th season, Stoops isn't satisfied and yearns for more.
“We certainly know we’re far from being where we want to be,” he said. “We want to continue to climb, continue to push, and constantly grow the program and take steps in a higher direction. That’s our plan, one day at a time.”
If the first nine years are any indication, the best is yet to come.
Keith Taylor is the sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.firstname.lastname@example.org and via Twitter at keithtaylor21