Coming from a family full of football coaches, new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops has spent nearly his entire life preparing for the chance to run his own high-profile program.
It’s a good thing he has passion for college football, because he will need that pedigree and a lot more if he hopes to succeed in helping make football relevant in the Bluegrass State.
The Wildcats are one of a handful of schools in BCS leagues whose identity lies completely with its basketball program. Hoops has always overshadowed football at Kentucky.
In fact, rumor has it that the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant left his job as the head coach of the Wildcats because he felt underappreciated compared to Adolf Rupp, according to Vahe Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The fortunes of Wildcats football disintegrated upon his departure, as they have failed to win an SEC title since Bryant traded Bluegrass for Cowboy hats and bolted for Texas A&M.
Even basketball-centric schools with a storied history in football—programs such as Syracuse and UCLA—have struggled to build a consistent winner on the gridiron.
The identity crisis at these schools is intensified by the changing landscape of college athletics—one in which realignment is driven chiefly by the strength, or lack thereof, of a school’s football program.
Coaches like Stoops are facing an uphill battle just getting their fanbases excited about football season. But that’s only scratching the surface of the problems he and other football coaches at hoops-oriented programs are encountering. If Bear Bryant couldn’t turn Kentucky into a football school, does Mark Stoops stand a chance?
Basketball schools’ relative disregard for football programs is most obvious when it comes to coaches’ salaries. Despite Division 1 football coaches earning an average of 17 percent ($1.64 million vs. $1.4 million) more than their basketball counterparts, these hoops powers pay hardwood generals as much as 245 percent more than football coaches (h/t USA Today).
Football coaches at schools like Indiana, Kansas, Duke and Arizona are paid less (view graph) and get less support and time to rebuild in comparison to their counterparts on the hardwood.
So, while hardwood legends such as Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Jim Boeheim have built decades-long empires, the athletic directors in charge at those schools have shown much less patience with their gridiron leaders.
The football programs at UCLA, Arizona, Kansas, Indiana, Duke, Kentucky and Syracuse have all changed coaches at least four times since 1998.
Ironically, Duke’s David Cutcliffe—who has been the Blue Devils head coach since 2008—is the longest tenured coach out of that group, and the only coach at any of these schools that has been at his present post for more than two years.
That type of instability is a telling measure that is directly reflected in the wins and losses for each school’s respective basketball and football teams.
The six hoops power schools listed on the graph have combined to record 13 bowl victories since 1998—with Kansas’ 2007 Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech serving as the group’s only BCS bowl win in that period.
Contrast that with 15 Final Four appearances and six national titles for that collective on the hardwood over the last 15 years, and the picture becomes clearer as to how their football programs have been dwarfed by the disparity in success.
Individually, each school has their own unique issues as to why their football teams have struggled in the BCS era—but an Athletic Department that emphasizes basketball is a tie that binds them together.
Some of their football programs are hindered by their location and a lack of access to recruiting hotbeds (Kansas, Kentucky), while some have to battle more stringent academic standards (Duke) or more established in-state football powers (Indiana and UCLA).
Stoops has first-hand experience in dealing with some of these limitations. He was an assistant on his brother Mike’s staff at Arizona. Mike Stoops was fired midway through his eighth season in Tucson after compiling a 41-50 record.
That’s not to say that succeeding at both sports cannot be done. All Stoops has to do is look at in-state rival Louisville—whose uprising in football likely played a significant role in helping the Cardinals bolt the Big East for greener pastures in the ACC. If schools like Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt can make noise in football, there’s no reason Duke can’t do the same in the ACC.
All these schools identified a promising young coach—Charlie Strong, Jim Harbaugh, Pat Fitzgerald and James Franklin—and made a concerted effort to give him everything he needed to be successful.
As Zac Ellis of Sports Illustrated notes, it’s the same blueprint that Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart used to attract Stoops to Lexington.
"We wanted to make sure that Mark knew we wanted him here. We wanted to make sure that he knew we were committed to football, that he has got the resources in terms of dollars to go out and get the staff necessary to get it done."
So aside from picking the right coach, how else can premier college basketball programs escape the basement on the gridiron?
Drumming up support—financially and in terms of commitment—from fans and the administration is the first place to start. Imagine transferring the spirit and energy from the Cameron Crazies into Wallace Wade Stadium on every Saturday this fall. Fan support may not guarantee victories on the field, but it’s mandatory in order to build momentum for a program like Duke.
But winning over the minds of the elite recruits is the most important battleground for new coaches like Scott Shafer at Syracuse.
Shafer acknowledged that the image of having an average program is a significant hurdle for Syracuse on the recruiting trail, according to Bud Poliquin of Syracuse.com. Without the ability to attract top talent, it’s nearly impossible for these schools to sustain success on the gridiron.
“I think the biggest thing, first and foremost, is the perception that we are not a big-time, major-college program. That’s been our obstacle. But I think joining the Atlantic Coast Conference is going to help us fight that. We haven’t been able to lure some of the best players in our own state to come to Syracuse. They end up going to a place like Notre Dame or one of those kinds of schools that, from a perception point of view, look like a major-college program.”
Part of the reason Stoops has been able to gain some positive momentum early in his tenure at Kentucky is because of the success he had in putting together the Wildcats best recruiting class in recent memory—which ranked 29th nationally according to Rivals.
However, for a program with aspirations of climbing up the ladder in the rugged SEC, the fact that Kentucky’s class still ranked 13th in the conference (only Missouri’s class finished lower) should be enough to temper expectations of a quick turnaround for Big Blue.
With both of the Big East’s representatives in this year’s Final Four field, Syracuse and Louisville, moving to the ACC in realignment, it’s a humble reminder to administrators across the nation that dominating on the hardwood means little in terms of a school’s future outlook.
Barnhart’s statement about his mission to do his part in helping Kentucky climb out of the SEC’s cellar is a step in the right direction for the Wildcats football program.
It’s that type of dedication and commitment that will help hoops powerhouses turn into programs that are capable of competing in both of college athletics’ top revenue-producing sports.
While it may be unrealistic for these football programs to annually compete for national titles, there’s little doubt that there is room for each of them to grow into clubs that are at the very least consistently bowl-eligible.
History has been unkind to the giants of college basketball hoping to find success on the gridiron.
But with the renewed emphasis on college football as the leading bread-winner in college athletics, the programs that excel on the court are facing a moment of truth in getting their football programs out of cellars of their respective leagues.