By LARRY VAUGHT
Mitch Barnhart obviously thought he made the right hire when he picked Mark Stoops to run the Kentucky football program. But he also knew there was no guarantee. After all, he thought he made the right move promoting Joker Phillips to head coach when Rich Brooks retired.
“I don’t think you’re ever confident when you go — you hope. And that’s the thing. You don’t want to lose hope. And for our fan base, for a long time, they’ve been hoping. And we’re not there yet,” Barnhart said.
True, but a nine-win season where Kentucky actually played in a game with a chance to advance to the SEC Championship game and a berth in the Citrus Bowl Jan. 1 has got Kentucky closer to a successful program than it has been in a long time.
“Our goal is still to get to Atlanta, (for the SEC title game) to play in that championship game in Atlanta. That’s still the goal. So that’s goal number one,” Barnhart said. “And then goal number two is obviously to play in the CFP (college football playoffs) and get to that next spot. But you have to take steps to get there.
“And what Mark has done, systematically, he’s taken steps to get there. And so my hope was what we built — we would build a defense over time that would allow us to not be so reliant and so leaning on our offense all the time to do that. In this league, you must be able to stop somebody and you must — in the fourth quarter, you’ve got to be able to stop them on a third and short and get the ball back for your offense.”
That’s the philosophy Stoops has. He’s a defensive-minded coach who seems to prefer a more conservative offense that can let a defense win games.
“Mark has built a team on both sides of the ball that has been able to, sometimes when the offense has struggled, the defense picked up the task. Sometimes when the defense has struggled, the offense has picked up the lead,” Barnhart said.
“So Mark has done a job of building on both sides of the ball. I think these kind of opportunities, when you get the chance to go to a bowl of this type, gives you a chance to continue to build on that success and puts you on a different stage.
“Really important for us as we use this in terms of recruiting and we use this in terms of building the heartbeat of our fans.”