LEXINGTON, Ky. — Year 4 is over for Mark Stoops and it represented a turning point in his time as Kentucky coach — a career arc shaped similarly to Rich Brooks’ tenure in Lexington.
Stoops’ fourth season ended with his first bowl as Wildcats coach after three consecutive losing campaigns. Brooks suffered losing seasons from 2003-05, his first three seasons at Kentucky, but his fourth, like Stoops’, ended with a bowl appearance.
Brooks’ record through four seasons at Kentucky: 17-30.
Stoops’ record through four seasons at Kentucky: 19-30.
If that’s not close enough, then how about both coaches’ SEC records during their first four seasons: 8-24 for Brooks, 8-24 for Stoops. Kentucky won four SEC games in Year 4 under Stoops. It was the first four-win conference season since 2006 — Brooks’ fourth year as coach.
And now the silver lining for Stoops in the comparison is what came after Brooks’ fourth year. Kentucky’s victory against Clemson in the 2006 Music City Bowl was the first of four straight bowls for Brooks and the Wildcats. He became the first coach in school history to notch four consecutive bowl appearances.
Brooks’ seven-year career in Lexington rejuvenated a program that had been short on success for several years prior. Stoops is trying to do the same. Albeit a loss, Kentucky’s TaxSlayer Bowl game was the school’s first postseason appearance since 2010.
“I think it was critically important,” Brooks told SEC Country. “Patience is not a virtue in college sports anymore and the season ticket holders would not have responded in a positive manner had he not flipped the switch and got them to a bowl game.”
Talent was sparse following Joker Phillips’ departure, and after three seasons of sifting through struggles, Stoops and the program surged to a seven-win season in 2016. And now Stoops’ challenge is building the program into a consistent postseason performer as Brooks did.
And while war is waged in the SEC West, Brooks sees a chance for Kentucky to take advantage of its side of the conference.
“Kentucky is in a position now to, you know, they don’t have to catch up ground on some of those other programs that are in the same boat they are or below them,” Brooks said. “Yeah, this is a great opportunity if they can come back and do a good job in the second year. They can establish a new identity in the SEC East.”
The East was the stronger side when Brooks arrived, but the gap between Kentucky and divisional stalwarts Florida, Tennessee and Georgia is shrinking. Stoops and company were dealt a loss by all three but showed progress by taking care of South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri.
“Everybody is trying to climb that ladder,” Brooks said. “If you blink, somebody is going to pass you.”
Brooks’ Kentucky teams did the passing from his fourth year in 2006 until he retired after the 2009 season. And now Stoops will look to mimic, or even surpass, the path Brooks mapped. Stoops took three years of punches, but after reaching a bowl bid, he too will look to do the passing.