ATLANTA — Mark Stoops is on the verge of reaching some significant milestones as Kentucky’s coach.
When the Wildcats open against Miami of Ohio on Sept 3, it will be the start of Stoops’ 10th season at Kentucky. That will make him the longest-tenured coach of a program that began playing football in 1881.
Last season Stoops tied Fran Curci, who coached the Wildcats for nine years from 1973-81, for the most seasons leading the program.
Stoops, 55, also is just two victories shy of surpassing Bear Bryant to become Kentucky’s all-time winningest coach.
Bryant, the Arkansas native best known for winning 232 games and six national championships in 25 seasons at Alabama, had a 60-23-5 record at Kentucky in eight seasons from 1946-53.
Stoops, who became the Wildcats’ coach in 2013 after being Florida State’s defensive coordinator, is 59-53.
“The 10 years in Lexington is something that I am proud of because I know how difficult it is,” Stoops said at SEC Media Days last week. “I know how difficult it is to walk into this league with the great coaching, with the recruiting, and starting like six feet below 14, then trying to climb that ladder as high as we can.”
Kentucky has been to bowl games six consecutive years and since 2018 is 33-17, including 10-3 records in 2018 and 2021.
Prior to 2018, Kentucky had won 10 or more games only twice, when the Wildcats were 11-1 in 1950 and 10-1 in 1977.
“I am proud of that, and I appreciate the work,” Stoops said of the program’s progress since going 2-10 in his first season. “However, we’re not satisfied. We want to continue to grow. We want to continue to push it.”
Last season, Georgia beat Alabama in an All-SEC national championship game.
“Obviously some teams at the top of the food chain in the East and the West are doing some really special things,” Stoops said. “So you have to continue to elevate your game.”
Kentucky, which has never won the SEC East, was picked to finish second behind Georgia in a vote at media days.
“As a team, high expectations are great,” said Kentucky senior quarterback Will Levis, a returning starter who passed for 2,827 yards and 24 touchdowns last season after transferring from Penn State. “I think that just gives us more motivation.
“With the prowess of the team now compared to where it was in years past, Kentucky fans are looking forward to having a big season, and they deserve that and we’re looking forward to delivering for them.”
Levis helped Kentucky improve its passing game in Liam Coen’s lone season as offensive coordinator.
Coen returned to the Los Angeles Rams — where he had been an assistant coach — as their offensive coordinator, but Stoops replaced him with another NFL veteran in Rich Scangarello, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterbacks coach last season who also was previously an coordinator with the Denver Broncos.
“I could not be more thrilled to add Rich to our staff,” Stoops said. “It keeps the continuity.
“Even though it’s a different coordinator, he understands the terminology, the scheme. We can keep a lot of the things we did well a year ago, keep that consistency, keep that continuity as well as anybody I could have hired.”
Levis said Scangarello will be his sixth offensive coordinator since he has committed to Penn State.
“You can look at it negatively. You can say there has never been a carryover from one year to another with an offense,” Levis said. “But I look at it positively. I think it’s helped me become a learner and a player that can take an install from a meeting room onto the field seamlessly.
“I’m a student of the game, and I’ve been a better student because of that.”
Kentucky returns the SEC’s second-leading rusher in senior Christopher Rodriguez, who gained 1,379 yards last season, and added transfer receivers Tayvion Robinson from Virginia Tech and Javon Baker from Alabama to help make up for the loss of Wan’Dale Robinson, a second- round draft pick of the New York Giants who had 104 catches for 1,134 yards last season.
“Offensively, I’m excited about where we can go,” Stoops said. “We’re always going to be a team that’s going to be physical, that can pound the football. But where we were falling short a couple years ago, we got better.
“I want to continue to build on that, with the success of the running game and pushing the ball down the field. When you have a quarterback like this, there’s not a throw he can’t make.”
Levis is known for his strong passing arm, but last season he rushed for 376 yards and nine touchdowns.
“Will is the ultimate gamer,” Kentucky senior linebacker DeAndre Square said. “I love watching him play, because he’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and get those extra yards.”
Senior guard Kenneth Horsey said he was surprised the first time he saw Levis, who is 6-3 and 232 pounds.
“I remember the first time I saw Will, I thought he was a tight end,” Horsey said. “I was like, ‘That’s the quarterback? OK then.’
“The way that he carried himself, he earned the respect of the locker room fairly quickly. We could tell right off the bat, not only how talented he is, but what a good person he is, how much he cared about the team.”
Square said he’s confident Kentucky, long known as the SEC’s basketball powerhouse, can hold its own in football now as well.
“Yes, we are a football school,” Square said. “I’m proud to say that. We’ve just been working constantly to build our reputation. To us, it’s not a surprise anymore to do good. That’s the standard.”
It’s a standard Stoops has established as the coach with the second-longest tenure in the SEC after Nick Saban, who is going into his 16th season at Alabama.
“Coach Stoops is still here at Kentucky because he has the utmost confidence in himself and his staff to recruit and develop players and win at high level,” Levis said. “He sees the trajectory this program is on.
“He told me when I was transferring that he’s at Kentucky for the long haul, and that made me a lot more comfortable going into this situation, knowing he’d be here.”
Stoops — whose brother, Bob, had a 191-48 record as Oklahoma’s coach — said the significance of passing Bryant for the most victories at Kentucky is important in what it will mean to his mother, Evelyn.
“It’s not a time to really reflect on that too much, but I do honestly just personally think about my mother, because I want her to be there,” Stoops said. “For her to have two sons that have the all-time wins at Power Five programs — with Bob at Oklahoma, myself as Kentucky — that’s really the only focus I have, is on my mother to be able to be there and share in that moment.”
Kentucky 2022 Schedule
All times Central
Sept. 3: Miami (Ohio) 6 p.m.
Sept. 10:at Florida 6 p.m.
Sept. 17: Youngstown State 11 a.m.
Sept. 24: Northern Illinois TBA
Oct. 1: at Ole Miss* TBA
Oct. 8: South Carolina* TBA
Oct. 15: Mississippi State* TBA
Oct. 29: at Tennessee* TBA
Nov. 5: at Missouri* TBA
Nov. 12: Vanderbilt* TBA
Nov. 19: Georgia* TBA
Nov. 26: Louisville TBA
LAST SEASON 10–3, 5-3 (second SEC East)
COACH Mark Stoops (59-53 in nine seasons at Kentucky)
RETURN STARTERS Offense 4, Defense 5
KEY PLAYERS QB Will Levis, RB Christopher Rodriguez, OL Kenneth Horsey, LB De’Andre Square, LB Jacquez Jones, SS Tyrell Ajian
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Brad White (fourth season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Rich Scangarello (first season)
SEC EAST TITLE SCENARIO Kentucky hopes its SEC finale against Georgia is a showdown for the East title. To make it happen, the Wildcats likely need to at least split the first two SEC games when they play on the road at Florida and Ole Miss.