After a horrible 2-10 campaign by the 2012 Wildcats last fall, there is lots of enthusiasm in UK's football program that's being generated after the hiring of new coach in Mark Stoops as well as his coaching staff's stunning success in recruiting battles in a short period of time.
The Big Blue Nation, now bubbling with excitement and optimism, is buzzing with gigantic hopes in seeing that the ex-Florida State defensive coordinator will eventually guide the struggling program to new heights in becoming an annual contender for an "upper-echelon"
bowl game as well as occasional SEC championship.
With that in mind, is Stoops perhaps the most popular football coach ever at UK before coaching his very first Wildcat game?
But I asked three of my news media colleagues (whom I've known for a long time) about the new Wildcat boss and posed that question to these veteran observers of UK football.
Said Lexington's long-time TV and radio broadcaster Dick Gabriel, "There's no question about it. There's never been a reaction to a new head football coach before he has coached a game at Kentucky."
As you will recall, the fans also have been excited about the new football coaches at UK in the past, but Stoops' arrival in the Bluegrass is a different story, according to Gabriel.
"A lot of members of the Big Blue Nation (even though the fan base wasn't referred to as the ‘BBN' back then) were relieved when Jerry Claiborne took over for Fran Curci. They knew he would clean up the program," added Gabriel.
"And Bill Curry had been named national Coach of the Year (at
Alabama) before he was hired. Nobody really knew who Hal Mumme was; Guy Morriss was an interim coach and a lot of UK fans were livid by the hiring of Rich Brooks although they would later eat their words.
"But the hiring of Stoops in a way felt more like the hiring of John Calipari, probably because of social media and the fact that UK was so in need of a strong hire, and there's no stronger ‘brand name' in college football than STOOPS."
Billy Reed, a former sports journalist for Louisville Courier- Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader, commented, "I would hesitate to say that (about Stoops being perhaps the most popular coach before his first UK contest) because I remember the great expectations that accompanied (Charlie) Bradshaw, John Ray and Bill Curry."
And Reed provides an interesting point of view on the hiring of Stoops.
"What's different about Stoops is that he succeeds the first coach who ever really lost the fan base," explained Reed, who was also a senior writer for Sports Illustrated for many years.
"In the past, even when UK was bad, the fan base stayed pretty solid. Not so with Joker (Phillips). I never remember so many empty seats for a coach on the way out. Whoever replaced Joker would have been popular. But Stoops' pedigree definitely moved the needle on the excitement meter."
While UK sports historian Russell Rice, now retired in Florida, agrees that new football coaches have been popular at Kentucky, generating new hopes for winning seasons, he provides a cautionary, but realistic perspective.
"From the miracle worker Bear Bryant, to the effervescent John Ray, to likeable Joker Phillips, and to all others of their persuasion, before and after, UK football fans have treated new coaches like a second coming," said Rice, a former sports editor of the old Lexington Leader as well as former UK sports information director.
"Too often the lions have ended up as lambs.
"I'm not from Missouri, so forgive me for being impressed, but not really excited when the new sheriff in town attracts a record crowd to the annual Blue-White Game in Commonwealth (Stadium).
"Remember that empty seats fire coaches, and one needs good players to fill those seats. I just hope Coach Stoops has a good pipeline to Florida and other football factories. If he wins, or should we say when he wins, let's hope for a clean program; remember, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it."
Nevertheless, Stoops, who was hired by UK in late November, is a pretty popular guy these days in Kentucky.
Speaking of Stoops, who is one of SEC's four new coaches, he is currently featured in Lindy's Sports and Athlon Sports college football yearbooks (along with the new hires, including UT's Butch Jones).
According to Athlon, Stoops said UK's membership in the SEC—the country's No. 1 football league—is a major selling point when luring the top prep prospects to Lexington.
Athlon also has an interesting poll of ranking the new coaches in college football. The Nashville-based yearbook has Stoops rated at No. 14 out of 31 new hires.
Guess who is No. 1 in that poll? Bobby Petrino of Western Kentucky, UK's season-opening opponent on August 31 in Nashville. Tennessee's Jones is at No. 12.
Lindy's, which is based in Birmingham, has a similar poll, ranking the SEC coaches. Stoops is rated last at No. 14 in the conference, but that's because he's the only one on the list who has never been a head coach, according to Lindy's.
Alabama's Nick Saban and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier are at No.
1 and No 2, respectively, in that ranking. Jones is rated No. 12.
Both 2013 colorful yearbooks, which are filled with excellent articles and season predictions, are available online (lindyssports.com and athlonsports.com) or at newsstands.
Jamie H. Vaught, a long-time sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.