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UK looking to Stoops for new heights

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Local Wildcats excited, optimistic about new coach

By John Herndon

The excitement over the University of Kentucky's hiring of Mark Stoops as its new head football coach isn't confined to a loyal fan base.

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While the Big Blue Nation has been abuzz since UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced, via Twitter, that Stoops had been hired last Tuesday, those who have worn the Blue and White on Saturdays might be even more excited about the guy with the famous football name taking on the challenge of turning around the Wildcats' football fortunes.

If anything, the guys who have lined up across from the Floridas, Georgias and Alabamas of the football world might have blood that is a shade deeper and runs thicker than most fans.

And, if the reaction of two Anderson County residents is indicative, those Bluest Bloods, the ones who have actually suited up and played, are mighty happy with what they think the future holds for UK football.

“I have seen Coach Stoops on TV a couple times,” says Freddie Maggard, who quarterbacked the Wildcats from 1988-91. “I like his intensity and defensive philosophy.”

Jason Dickerson, who was a long-snapper for the Wildcats from 2002-2006, is also excited about the apparent direction the Wildcats are taking. “What (Stoops) has done at Florida State is obviously very good,” Dickerson said before Stoops' defense shut down Georgia Tech's high-powered attack in the ACC Championship Game Saturday night. “I am really impressed by the job he did (as defensive coordinator) at Arizona. When he got there, they had been a 3-9 or 4-8 team and they turned things around.

“I am more impressed with that than what he did at Florida State. There, they took a very good team and made it into an elite team.

“From what I know, his defense is always good.”

While they played 15 years apart, Maggard and Dickerson share the experience of being around during a coaching change and both empathize with the current Wildcats.

Maggard had just guided the Wildcats to a 6-5 season in 1989 when, a few days later, Jerry Claiborne announced his retirement. While he played some for Bill Curry, it was still difficult. “My coaching change experience was tough,” Maggard said by e-mail. “Coach Claiborne was such a father figure, it was an emotional time.”

Dickerson, an Elizabethtown native, had walked on at UK in 2002 just in time to see Guy Morriss apparently turn things around with an 8-4 season before leaving for Baylor. Rich Brooks came in.

“I was a long snapper. I don't know if Coach Morriss even knew who I was,” Dickerson said with a laugh. “What I remember, especially among the older guys, was they would have to prove themselves again with Coach Brooks. I remember people thinking, 'Why not give Coach Morriss the money?' or 'Who is this guy (Brooks)?'

“I didn't know anything about Coach Brooks at the time.”

After Sunday's press conference, which he attended, Maggard said on Twitter, “Today was like an SEC expansion party! Welcome to the SEC BBN (Big Blue Nation)!”

He also tweeted, “By far, best UK production I've seen in my lifetime. Coach Stoops owned the room.”

“The players are excited, which is to be expected,” Maggard said in his e-mail. “What's important is at 5 a.m. in winter work-outs will that attitude be consistent when the new staff tests their manhood, which they will.”

But the bottom line is that Kentucky was 2-10 last year, only five years from being ranked in the Top 10 and knocking off No. 1 LSU in Commonwealth Stadium. While Brooks seemed to make a living out of finding under-recruited gems like Randall Cobb, the fact is that Kentucky has not beaten Florida since before Maggard played and just ended an even longer losing streak to Tennessee in 2011.

Both Maggard and Dickerson see recruiting as the key.

“Recruiting is the name of the game in these days,” says Maggard, who was a highly-regarded three-sport athlete at Cumberland High School in Harlan County. “Being from Kentucky, I would certainly like to see more in-state players as a base. Coach Stoops' connections in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona and western U.S. Juco's will be a welcome addition.”

Dickerson, who was part of UK's Music City Bowl champions in 2006, sees the Wildcats' diminishing influence in-state as telling. While some big-time prospects, like Highlands' Patrick Towles, have matriculated in Lexington in recent years, many others have ended up as part of the resurgence at Louisville or Western Kentucky or have even left the state altogether.

Dickerson, who teaches science at Anderson County Middle School, thinks it is imperative that UK control the in-state recruiting while reaching out to Ohio, Florida and other locales. “If I were a kid from, say, Alabama and I was looking at UK, if the best players in the state wanted to go somewhere else, that would say something to me.

“If (Stoops) gets linebackers from Ohio, a quarterback from Texas, some running backs and wide receivers from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, we are all set.”

But Dickerson says it will take more than hiring someone who has the same name and blood as his highly-successful brother, Bob, the coach at Oklahoma.

“The bottom line is that it doesn't matter who you bring in,” he said. “If the administration and the higher-ups or the people with money don't provide the resources, it won't matter.

“You have to be creative. At Oregon, they have a different uniform every game. Kids love that.”

Now, there is a honeymoon period for Stoops and the staff he brings in. Fans are excited and Commonwealth Stadium will likely be rocking when Miami of Ohio comes to town Sept. 7.

“It is good to have someone who has been there,” Dickerson said.

Adds Maggard, “My family attended home games and will continue to do so.”

 

Comment at www.theandersonnews.com.