Kentucky football was more or less dead by the end of the 2012 season. Crowds were embarrassingly small, the team went 2-10, and it suffered the ignominy of falling to Western Kentucky.
I was pretty bullish on UK's hire of Mark Stoops back last November. He did a fantastic job turning around FSU's defense and, as one of the Youngstown Stoops brothers, he has a big name in the important recruiting grounds of Ohio (the best talent-producing state that Kentucky borders). Ever since his hiring date, he's been raising the excitement level.
On Saturday, things paid off in a big way. The announced crowd at the team's spring game was a record 50,831. For perspective, that's a larger announced crowd than five of the team's seven home games from last fall (only WKU and UGA topped it). And, let's not forget, some of those announced figures might have been padded a little. The 50,000+ figure from this weekend was not a fiction according to some disinterested observers who were there. It's a legit number. It also represented a rejuvenation of the fan base that had largely abandoned last year's sorry outfit.
How did Stoops do it? Well, he gives a pretty exciting press conference, for one. Not that it would have mattered had he won a lot of games, but listening to Joker Phillips speak to the media is like getting your teeth pulled. On top of that, he delivered by far the school's highest-rated recruiting class in the history of rated classes. Here is how it stacks up with every class since Rich Brooks took over the program in '03:
Rankings from Rivals.com
Ignore the 2014 line and just look at 2013 for right now. Stoops's transitional haul—not even a full class he assembled himself, but what he picked up from Phillips's staff's work—was only the third top-50 class and the first top-30 class in the past 11 years. It tied for the high with three four-star prospects, and it tied for second in number of Ohio players with three. Not bad.
OK, now look at the 2014 line. It looks like it's shaping up pretty well so far with a four-star guy and two Ohio guys, right? Well, those two Ohio guys are the only two commits as of yet, so yeah, he's off to a great start. There aren't just a couple of good ones hiding a bunch of chaff. The four-star guy is even a receiver with offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Penn State, among others. And he picked Kentucky. Yes, that Kentucky. No, really.
So we have a coach who has come in to a typically bottom tier SEC football program, energized the fan base, and delivered recruiting success well above what the school has ever been able to do. That sounds... familiar. Of course, we have yet to see this particular Stoops brother coach a game yet, and he didn't exactly inherit the '85 Bears from his predecessor. It would be surprising to see the team just make it back to the postseason, as the schedule only has three games that look like relatively safe wins.
Still though, it's going to be worth keeping an eye on what Stoops is doing in Lexington. It wasn't that long ago that Kentucky beat the eventual national champion. It's a program that can cause some trouble for the league's powers. Mark Stoops has been largely ignored outside of the state of Kentucky since his hiring, and while he probably likes it that way for now, he might not stay under the radar for too long.