There’s Something About Stoops

In just a couple of days, the UK chinstraps will buckle up for real, and the conversation will change. Hype and hope will turn to real-world results.

One topic of conversation that will continue to run, though – a subtle whisper at times, a roaring bullhorn at others – will be the subject of recruiting. It’s the red blood cells of college sports.

I just read an article in ESPN: The Magazine about what Jim Harbaugh is bringing back to Michigan-Ohio State, the mac daddy of all sports rivalries.

Think of Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Final Four and multiply it by a Saturday afternoon in late November every year.

But it’s been a pretty one-sided rivalry lately. When one team has won nine of the last 10, The Game threatens to become Just One of the Games. Michigan’s return to prominence would require reversing the score against OSU. It would require a mutant with animal-keen senses and deadly fingernails. It would require a Wolverine, like Logan – or Harbaugh.

The article talked about how Harbaugh hit Ann Arbor like a tornado, ripping up some trees and tossing a few cars into the air. His eyes blaze with dark intensity, his jaw is firmly sculpted into a confident sneer and he erupts into high schoolers’ living rooms with the romantic notion that going to Michigan is like a crusade, wearing the winged helmet of maize and blue, regaining the program’s history of glory. Tommy Harmon, Desmond Howard, Tom Brady, Charles Woodson, “Hail to the Victors.”

I couldn’t help but think about both Mark Stoops and John Calipari, though for very different reasons. Like Harbaugh at Michigan, both came to UK to revive sagging programs. But Stoops slipped in a relative unknown, except maybe as the baby in the famous Stoops family coaching line. Calipari’s reputation – his aura, his dazzle, his controversies and his successes – arrived in Lexington several days before his plane landed.

Both were tasked to win. Winning in college begins with recruiting. And recruiting, at least in the first couple of years, begins with spinning a mesmerizing sermon. You have no record to run on, so you have to fill the living rooms with the promises of greatness.

Harbaugh has a little easier task. His resume includes playing quarterback at Michigan and engineering a legendary come-from-behind win over the Buckeyes in 1986. (Who could doubt “Captain Comeback”?) He’ll bleed Blue all over the recruits’ living rooms.

But can a coach turn a program around just by dint of his forceful personality? Didn’t Calipari? Billy Gillispie’s last team went 22-14. Cal’s first team went 35-3 and we never looked back. (Well, once, and we didn’t like what we saw.)

But Stoops is so much different than either Calipari or Harbaugh. He doesn’t much seem to enjoy the microphone. He doesn’t prowl the sidelines like Pete Carroll or glare like Nick Saban or throw up his hands in disdain and look to the heavens like Steve Spurrier. (“Why, God, why did You burden the Old Ball Coach with such disappointing young men?”)

Stoops doesn’t get in his players’ faces in front of everybody, though you sort of know players wouldn’t want to arouse his wrath, either.

Cal’s recruiting is legendary. We don’t know much about that of Stoops. He seems to deflect a lot of the credit to his assistants. Like Harbaugh, he’s from Ohio, and he sees the benefit of mining that football-rich state. But Ohio kids know that heading across the state’s northern border is riding a bet that Harbaugh will indeed bring glory back to The Big House.

On the other hand, heading across Ohio’s southern border is heading – where? And why? There’s no national glory to recapture, no legendary conference rivalry to turn around, just a program that has been the SEC’s punching bag for a few seasons.

So in some sense, Stoops’ recruiting has been even more impressive than Cal’s. Cal has a national title, an annual pass to the Final Four, all those banners hanging at Rupp and all those first-round draftees making huge money. (Meet Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the new $52 million man.)

Stoops can only sell being part of a program that he will pull, through the strength of his convictions, across the SEC line: first, beat Florida; next, make a Bowl game; next, win the SEC East; and after that…

His jaw may not be set like Harbaugh’s, his patter may not inspire like Cal’s, but his freshmen and sophomores do tell a compelling story.

I don’t know how the story ends. But Chapter 2015, Verse One, is on Saturday.

Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer