When Mike Stoops considers the job his brother, Mark, has done at Kentucky, he sees similarities from his eight-year stint at Arizona.
Mark Stoops was Mike’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach for six of those eight years: 2004-09. Arizona’s defense was ranked 109th in total defense in 2003, the year before Mike and Mark arrived in Tucson. The Wildcats sported a top-25 defense in Mark’s last two years with Mike before Mark took the defensive coordinator gig at Florida State.
Mike, who rejoined Bob Stoops’ staff at Oklahoma after he was fired in 2012, offered both a brotherly insight and that of a former employer when SEC Country caught up with him to talk about Mark.
The Kentucky coach is entering Year 5 in Lexington. A 2-10 start to Mark’s Kentucky tenure was followed by back-to-back 5-7 campaigns. But Kentucky’s seven-win season in 2016 landed the Wildcats their first bowl bid since 2010.
“Getting over the hump, it wasn’t easy,” Mike Stoops said. “It takes time.”
Here’s our full Q&A with Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
Q: How would you assess the job Mark has done in his first four years at Kentucky?
Mike: It seems like it’s gotten better every year. Just maneuvering the pieces and getting the right people in the right spots takes some time. I think he’s got a good staff on both sides of the ball. I’ve been impressed probably the most by their recruiting. It’s been really strong. Think he’s done a good job there. Getting his staff in line is critical and I think they’ve gone through some offensive guys. I know that. I think I’ve been most impressed of late with Eddie Gran. Eddie’s done a really good job. You can see the physicality of the team improved, especially offensively. Just from afar. It’s hard for me to get too deep with it because I don’t watch every game. I watch good parts of it.
Getting his defense the way he wants it, he seems more comfortable now. He went through a change there. It’s been tough getting consistency and continuity in your team. I think that’s critical, and I went through that my first few years at Arizona. It took me a couple years to get comfortable with the staff. There’s a lot of similarities to what I did at Arizona and what he did at Kentucky. There and Kentucky are two very similar places that took a lot of reconstruction and development. That’s what’s so hard in these leagues of this nature. You can’t just out-scheme people because they’ve got a lot of good athletes running around.
It’s been tough. I think he feels good about the staff. I think building some continuity now is really important with Eddie. And getting a quarterback that can win at this level is something that’s very difficult to do. You’ve got to have quarterback play, and I think he feels some more consistency will help him with that. I know they ran the ball well, but their ability to throw the ball is going to be important, too. Anytime you can run the ball that effectively you should be able to throw it.
You mentioned similarities between what you faced at Arizona and what Mark started with at Kentucky. What are some of those?
Mike: I think it has more to do with the talent. You have to get players no matter what. No matter what the coaching is, you have to have talented players. There’s too much of a disparity in players initially, and attitude and how they work. Once you take those programs over, I don’t remember how Kentucky was left, but we were 2-10 or something the year before. It’s not very good. It takes you two or three years to get to even, to where we can start to peek our heads above water, if that makes sense. It takes that amount of time. The first year or two you’re closing the gaps on everybody. That’s what you really look at. We were getting beat by 35 and are we getting beat by 17 now or 10? Are we closing the gaps on everybody? That’s what you’re starting to recognize. And maybe the next thing you know your third year you start beating a team or two that you’re not supposed to because you’ve gotten better internally. That’s what it takes.
Q: What was it like having Mark as your defensive coordinator at Arizona? What was your relationship with him having worked with a couple of your brothers?
Mike: Well, it’s different. It’s pretty stressful on your families because you’re brothers and you’re very protective and wanna do well, wanna represent them well. There’s added pressure in some ways. I enjoyed all the good victories and great memories of big games with them. Experiencing those things with them are always neat, too. You’ve gotta take the good with the bad. It’s different. It’s harder. It puts a lot of stress on your brother. That’s for sure. There’s a lot of pressure on you as coordinators to make sure you play well. It’s not easy. It really isn’t. It’s a tough job. That’s for sure.
Q: You and Bob worked with each other for such a long time in two separate stints. Do you ever think about what’s next for you or talk to Mark about possibly teaming up with him again?
Mike: We always talk about what’s going on after the season. I never look too far ahead. I think you always take it year to year and try to do the best. I love it here. I love Lincoln [Riley], I love working for him. It’s been an easy transition. Again, I enjoy Oklahoma. This is a place where you can win every time you step on the field, and that’s important to me — to have those opportunities to play. We’ll see. You take it one year at a time. I’ve never really focused on anything other than the job I’ve had. That’s really the way I’ve gone about it my whole coaching career. I think if you’re good at what you do, you do it right, and your team plays the right way, I don’t think you ever have to worry about being marketable. I think that’s what all good coaches I’ve been around have done. Do your job, do it well and don’t worry about it. Something always good seems to be on the horizon if you do that, whether it’s at your place or somewhere else.
Q: You guys are in very different leagues as far as offenses and the types of looks you see on a weekly basis. But with both of you being defensive-minded, do you ever talk about schemes or ideas that might help each other?
Mike: Yeah, a lot. He’ll ask, ‘What do you do here?’ I’ll ask, ‘What do you do there?’ There are similarities between what we do, but there are differences in what we see week in and week out. You have to adjust to what you see. There are things we pass on for sure.
Q: Bob’s coaching model is pretty rare as far as being able to stay at one school for an extended time. Do you think Mark could follow that same path at Kentucky and plant his roots there? How do you see that playing out?
Mike: Loyalty is just something that’s embedded in us from our family and our upbringing. We’re all very loyal people. I know that’s part of it. I know he loves it there. His family loves it. I believe you can win anywhere. Coach [Bill] Snyder has proven that over and over and over. A lot of people have won at places you weren’t supposed to. I think they support him. People say, ‘Well, it’s a basketball school.’ I’ve never believed that. I’ve never believed it for one day. It takes a huge commitment to win in football, and from what I see, they seem tremendously committed to their football program with their facilities. It’s important to do well in football. I think they see the benefits in that. Those are the important elements of longevity is the commitment and do you enjoy the people where you’re at, where you’re working? He’s a loyal person and they’ve been very good to him in tough situations. Getting over the hump, it wasn’t easy. It takes time. These leagues are about as good — they’re tough jobs. He’s gotten his team over the mountain, over that .500 mark. That was important. I think he’s happy from being around him and Chantel. They enjoy the experience there.
Q: I know you’ve got your own team to worry about, but are you able to find time to watch each other’s games and pull for each other?
Mike: Oh yeah. You go through your game and then you gotta go through another three hours of his game. It’s excruciating. You’re wore out by that time. Bob doesn’t even watch them sometimes. It just gets him too, you know. You’re so beat up. You play every play with him because you know how important it is. You know how much those wins and losses mean. It’s not easy, but I watch more than Bob probably watches. That’s for sure.