As those that have read this site for a while know, one of my favorite movies in the world is “The Usual Suspects”. In it, Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint is being questioned about the mysterious Keyser Soze and his existence and says “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”.
Without coaching a football game yet, Mark Stoops has performed a “greatest trick” of his own. In just a matter of months, he has erased the negativity and misery of the Joker Phillips era and transformed it into a unified and vocal Big Blue Army that is worshipping his every move. He has created the same type of passionate and dedicated following that was normally reserved for John Calipari. And my apologies to the ones that did exist previously, but he has created a whole new big blue army of ardent 24 hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year … football fan.
And to be honest, in my wildest dreams, I did not think this day would exist.
I have run this site since May of 2009 and aside from that wonderful first summer of Calipari-mania, blogging about college sports in June and July is like dancing about architecture. There is no point in it. So in the past, I have used the summer months as a chance to cut down on some posts and try to recharge the batteries of my staffers who tirelessly grind from August to April for football and basketball season.
This year, due to the deluge of “Yahtzee!” playing, Marks Stoops and company kept us busy and at times frazzled. And I have experienced the culture change among Kentucky fans up close and personal. I just got back from my summer vacation and I normally sport my Kentucky blue wherever I go. And usually wherever I go, I am met with more than one blue clad fan you want to discuss Kentucky sports.
And as I walked through the streets of Savannah last week, I heard more comments about Stoops than Calipari … although it was pretty darn close. And the rival fans are worried. While at Mrs Wilkes Dining Room, I found myself across the family style table from orange clad Tennessee fans and the their usual arrogance was gone when we talked football. And they are not pleased that game is in Lexington this year.
And so on and so on it goes.
Just like John Calipari, Mark Stoops has united and re-energized the fanbase after the years of BCG and Joker complacency. And both coaches did it by making big changes and changing the culture of the sport. John Calipari, never a fan of the one and done rule, used it to his advantage at Kentucky and went after the best of the best, regardless of how long they planned on staying in college. Calipari went against the norms at Kentucky and changed the minds of the Bluegrass. Now the majority of fans have embraced going after the best of the best and celebrate the former Cats in the NBA as part of the Big Blue Family.
Just don’t talk to Jeff Sheppard.
While Calipari instituted a culture wide change in thinking to become a “Players First” school, Mark Stoops is not making a culture change. He has simply turned recruiting on its ear and gone to battle with the Big 10 schools on their home turf in Ohio. And he had his staff have been fearless in doing so. After years and decades of trying to go head to head against the SEC powers in their home states, Stoops has made Ohio the true battleground state.
While Joker and Rich Brooks had occasional victories in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, they still lost the war to the Gators, Bulldogs and Vols. Now Stoops is going toe to toe against the Big 10 powers in Ohio and winning. In addition, Stoops is outright taking commits and getting transfers from storied programs like Nebraska.
Nebraska? I never thought I would see the day.
In the end, it’s great to generate enthusiasm and reconnect with the fans, but eventually you have to win games. John Calipari won instantly. It’s going to take a year or two for Mark Stoops, but it appears that he is going to get that honeymoon period that Joker Phillips never got. Perhaps that is because Joker inherited a winning program that was going to bowls and Calipari and Stoops are starting from the ground up, resurrecting programs from the ashes.
I’ve argued in the past that Kentucky is a football school and Mark Stoops is proving that point. Day by day and Yahtzee! by Yahtzee!