The four steps to building football respect at a ‘basketball school’

  • College football reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
  • Graduate of Northwestern University.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Long before the Kentucky Wildcats marched into the top 10 of college football’s rankings, coach Mark Stoops had a good feeling about his team in 2022.

On a Wednesday in mid-August — the epicenter of the training camp grind, when boredom and complacency can collide — Kentucky completed another productive practice.

Stoops sensed he had another good team, but he knew he had a strong, stable program after nearly a decade at UK.

“I mean, it’s downright enjoyable,” Stoops said. “In the middle of camp, in the middle of summer, sometimes it gets old. Sparks fly and guys want to play somebody different. But our guys are genuinely fun to coach. It’s a great environment.”

Stoops had moved on from the stir caused several days earlier by Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who told reporters during a preseason trip to the Bahamas that UK “is a basketball school,” while branding SEC competitors Alabama and Georgia as “football schools.” Stoops defended his program on Twitter and then with reporters, saying he stays in his lane and oversees a program that “wasn’t born on third base.”

“I embrace it and love it, the history of our basketball,” he added. “I didn’t have that history. We’re creating it.”

Kentucky will always be known first for its basketball tradition, but Stoops has built UK football into a respected, relevant program in the nation’s toughest conference. He has led Kentucky to bowl games in each of the past six seasons and AP top-20 finishes in 2018 and 2021. Kentucky enters this week’s game at No. 14 Ole Miss (noon ET, ESPN) with its highest AP ranking (7) since finishing the 1977 season No. 6, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

After helping Kentucky end its 31-game losing streak to Florida in 2018, Stoops on Sept. 10 passed Bear Bryant as the program’s all-time winningest coach after a win over the Gators. The longest-tenured coach in Kentucky history is 51-29 since the start of the 2016 season.

“There’s respect at the college level, the high school level and the pro level for what we’ve done and what we continue to do,” Stoops said. “For me as a coach, that’s what you’re aiming for.”

Here’s a closer look at the steps Kentucky took to create its rise in football, and what five other programs more known for basketball — Arizona, Duke, Illinois, Indiana and Kansas — can learn as they approach the same mission.

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