Early in their search to replace Willie Taggart in 2019, Florida State officials had a conversation with Mark Stoops, former Seminoles defensive coordinator from 2010 to 2012. There was no official offer extended to Stoops, nor was this an official interview. It was just two sides of a potential situation exploring the idea. This kind of contact under these pretenses happens a lot.
The way it was described to me, the FSU contingent in touch with Kentucky’s head coach couldn’t promise that Stoops would receive a unanimous welcome among the decision makers; he was told he would “have to work” to get the job. In coach-rumor-speak, “have to work” means politicking.
Both parties quickly moved on for reasons they’ll never confirm on the record. But I can tell you that Stoops was likely uninterested in laying out to convince FSU of his worth. Because Mark Stoops, head coach of your Kentucky Wildcats football program, already has the best coaching job in the country. Just ask another football coach.
1. “Have you ever seen Mark’s contract? Mark has the best fucking deal in the country.”
An SEC assistant told me this when I asked about Stoops petering out on FSU, a job most of us would assume to be on par with Oklahoma, the program that made his brother Bob famous — and a national champion.
Now, Stoops’ contract is very nice (his base salary increases annually; currently he’s due $4.6 million in 2020) but the assistant was specifically referring to this: Every time Kentucky wins seven games in the regular season, Stoops’ contract is automatically extended by one year.
Just seven games. That’s it. After Kentucky beat Louisville last season to secure their seventh win, the deal is now set to expire in 2026. That level of security for just seven wins — in the Southeastern Conference, no less — is amazing.
And if Stoops gets fired for cause, he’s still guaranteed 75% of his overall deal at the exit. By winning seven regular season games and a bowl in 2019, Stoops made another contractually guaranteed $4.5 million. At least.
You should love Kentucky if you’re a head coach. You should never leave Kentucky. Kentucky is gonna make you really rich for a realistic amount of achievement — and in the SEC, of all places.
2. “You know why it’s only seven games? Basketball.”
Two years ago I interviewed Kentucky A.D. Mitch Barnhart about his plan with Stoops, currently 44-44 all-time with the Wildcats. What Barnhart couldn’t say — because it ultimately demeans the work done by Stoops and his staff — is that Kentucky is and will always be a basketball school. (Kentucky, I’m informed, is a national powerhouse and historic brand in the sport.) Because of this, it’s essentially the only school in its conference that doesn’t place football first, or at least where football isn’t the most visible revenue-generating sport.
It’s not that Kentucky lacks for apeshit fans or meddling boosters or religious levels of attachment to its sports. Alabama fans kill famous trees, but Kentucky fans BRAND THE SCHOOL LOGO ON YOUR UNSUSPECTING UTERUS. So yeah, five years of mediocre win totals during Stoops’ program renovation are more palatable here – because they take place in a sport outside of the fandom eye of Sauron.
It’s fine to scoff, if you want, that a seven-win season is the Kentucky standard, a mark half the league would consider to be a middling if not outright failure of a year. But it also signals that Kentucky is aware of itself and has reasonable expectations. That state of mind — almost entirely absent in college football — allows for patience, some sanity, and a better quality of life if you’re a football coach.
And this is what the result of a pragmatic, sensible program-building campaign looks like: Kentucky won 12 games, total, in its first three seasons under Stoops, and when they “broke through” to winning seasons in 2016 and ‘17, it was with a pair of 7-6 campaigns. Since then, UK has won 18 games and a New Year’s Day bowl. This kind of build evokes something very old-school: Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech or Rich Brooks (himself a former Kentucky coach) at Oregon.
It’s that ability to maintain an even keel that makes Kentucky a better and more liveable job than South Carolina or either of the Mississippi schools. It’s accomplished thanks to boosters and fans having an entirely separate, larger economy of thought that’s distinct from football.
Keep in mind, though — a winning, popular basketball program isn’t why Kentucky football is a good job. It’s how it’s managed to become one. You don’t need your own Final Four program to create a quality football job. You just need to exercise the kind of pragmatism afforded to schools that have it.
3. “But you still get to tell people you’re an ‘SEC COACH.’ And not at Vanderbilt.”
This statement is not meant to be entirely tongue in cheek. Kentucky lives and dies recruiting out of state (Randall Cobb, Benny Snell, Lynn Bowden). Any coach at any program will admit there’s an inarguable advantage when you’re wearing the SEC logo on your quarter-zip.
Kentucky is not Alabama, nor is it LSU. Or Georgia. Or Auburn or Florida or Texas A&M. But they’re not trying in vain to be one of those brands. Instead, they’re utilizing their assets to maximize their own potential. They’re now a program with four consecutive winning seasons in the SEC East. Last year they were a kick away from beating Florida (again) and managed an eight win season with a converted wide receiver at quarterback!
But maybe you’re still not convinced. And that’s fine. Maybe Mark Stoops is secretly DYING to be the next head coach at Notre Dame, or maybe you think he should’ve campaigned his ass off to go to Tallahassee.
4. “You have to think like a normal football coach, not a fan, and not Nick Saban.”
None of this is about to sound particularly sexy, but such is the context of any Dad Logic: Lexington itself provides the secret recruiting enticement for any coach, and that’s quality of life.
“Look man, Lexington is a really nice town. It’s big but still small, it’s got nice houses, and there’s horse racing and the Bourbon Trail and all that. You’re a few hours from Nashville and Louisville and Cincinnati. You get four seasons, good schools for your kids and it’s not the middle of nowhere.”
“You’re not going to piss your wife off moving to Lexington, Kentucky.”
If this argument feels like a concession, it’s also a warm embrace of sound logic: There are 130-odd FBS programs eligible to win a national title. There’s likely 20 or so in any given year that have any realistic chance, and inside of that, about half with a feasible roadmap not heavily reliant upon weird luck or upset losses.
Let’s just say this quiet part loud: The overwhelming majority of head coaches in college football today operate knowing they cannot win a national title at their current job. They can either bear down and attempt to exploit every opportunity to score one of those precious few tickets to the postseason raffle, or they can have lives, seeking satisfaction on the periphery.
“You gotta understand, not everyone’s gonna win a natty. And not every guy who’s a good enough coach to win one can put up with all the shit it takes to be the guy at a program that can win one.”
Kentucky football isn’t just fucking around out there — you have to be a good coach to stay in your seat. But what you don’t have to do is mortgage your sanity along the way in pursuit of a level of success that’s either unattainable or unsustainable.
There’s no real certainty in the SEC, but: Maybe Stoops becomes a victim of his own success at Kentucky and can’t replicate 2018’s ten-win season, building ennui among a fan base learning to get excited about football after November. Maybe Stoops does burn way deep down for one of those 20 or so jobs that offer a chance at a national title. But in terms of your own wellbeing, there aren’t many jobs that pay you this much and offer you the highest platform in a sport and preach patience at the same time. You might even be able to win the division at Kentucky eventually, meaning you’re a play-in game away from the College Football Playoff.
But even if you don’t, aren’t you better off making another $4.5 million every time you lead a happy fan base to the Music City Bowl, watching your neighbors lose their mind over basketball and enjoying the bluegrass? Maybe Mike Norvell can answer that in five years. Or Willie Taggart can now.