Stoops has weathered critics who were loudest after past loss to Florida

The Florida Gators are coming to town, with their blue and orange and all that chomping. What they also bring are memories.

Admit it – this spot on the schedule triggered blissful memories of what happened in the Swamp last year, of Terry Wilson throwing touchdown bombs and breaking loose for his own scoring run. Of Bunchy Stallings making a name for himself by flattening a Gator defender on national television. Of Davonte Robinson, picking up what turned out to be a fumble and, at the frenetic urging of his head coach, running to the end zone for a TD on the final play of the game.

That head coach, Mark Stoops, celebrated in the locker room as though he’d hit the lottery, screaming and dancing with his players, presenting a game ball to offensive line coach John Schlarman, who just weeks earlier had been given a medical diagnosis that nobody wants to hear.

It was incredible and it was transformative. That victory marked Kentucky as a team that had not only erased a 31-game losing skid but one truly making progress in the Southeastern Conference.

You might think it was a turning point – THE turning point – in the Stoops Era, but it wasn’t. Certainly, it looms massive. But if this run of success endures, to find the turnaround you need to look back on a different Florida game.

And man, was it ugly.

September 10, 2016. Gainesville. Second game of the season: Florida 45, Kentucky 7. And it wasn’t that close.

Two years prior, the Cats had pushed the Gators into overtime and had it not been for a Florida TD pass after the play clock had expired, the streak would have ended that night. In 2015, Florida escaped Lexington with an ugly 14-9 win. So the rout in ’16 was, to say the least, unexpected.

Two things happened after that dreadful performance: Drew Barker gave way to a serious back injury (which eventually ended his career prematurely) opening the door to backup QB Stephen Johnson; and Stoops began to take more of an active role in calling the defense.

A young D.J. Eliot was Kentucky’s defensive coordinator at the time; Stoops moved him up to the press box while stressing that Eliot had not been demoted. But the calls from the sideline began to arrive more smoothly and with better accuracy.

With Johnson taking over for Barker in the third series against New Mexico State, UK survived a 62-42 track meet and then split its next 10 games, including a loss in the Taxslayer Bowl.

Just the fact that Kentucky played in the post season no doubt came as a surprise to the Stoops haters. They offered their analysis on social media after reading the column I posted from Gainesville:

“Stoops should man up and RESIGN!” bleated one. “Save the University the 12-million dollar buyout and let Barnhart begin to search for a NEW head coach!”

“UK needs a proven ‘name’ coach, who can attract winners,” bellowed another. “That may not even be possible. Little room for optimism.”

Another verbally wrung his hands, saying, “There’s nothing he can do. He is what he is. Not made to be a head coach. “

So wrong, all of them, as it turns out. What Stoops needed was the time it took to bring in better players – which is exactly how he described the process when he arrived in Lexington.

Of course, back then the Haters had given up hope on any kind of improved recruiting:

“Agree, a name coach with a track record will make the difference in recruiting but who wants to come?”

“Look at Louisville! We cannot even get to that level!”

Let that sink in for a moment.

A contender in 2016 for a berth in the national playoff, the U of L program would eventually crater and the plummet began toward the end of that season. Kentucky was a catalyst, stunning eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Cards with a 41-38 upset victory at Cardinal Stadium.

More wins would follow in 2017, along with another bowl bid. And the shine from the 2018 worksheet will never fade.

A second straight win over the Gators won’t be simple; Kentucky is a touchdown underdog. A loss would hardly be disastrous although it likely would prompt a new round of criticism. Such is the life in spectator sports.

But it’s hard to imagine it would trigger the kind of sullen, depressive panic that it did three years ago. This program has come far under a guy some thought wasn’t cut out to be a head coach.

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