The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

UK's Stoops is mum on pursuing Bryant's records

18 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: AP Photo/Michael Clubb

One record will fall and another will be in jeopardy when Kentucky opens its season against Miami of Ohio. By coaching the first game of his 10th season, Mark Stoops will set a record for longevity by a UK head football coach. Win the game, and Stoops will match Bear Bryant as the winningest coach in Kentucky history with victory No. 60.

Stoops didn't have much interest in discussing the possibility of tying Bryant with his first win of the season and passing him with the second. But approaching the record for tenure? That got him talking.

"The 10 years in Lexington is something that I am proud of because I know how difficult it is," Stoops said. "I know how difficult it is to walk into this league with the great coaching, with the recruiting, and starting like six feet below No. 14 (of 14 SEC teams), then trying to climb that ladder as high as we can. I am proud of that, and I appreciate the work."

Here's a stat to help the rest of us appreciate what it means to reach a decade as an SEC head football coach. Eleven of the league's 14 coaches have been in their current jobs for four years or less. Only Nick Saban, heading into his 16th season at Alabama, has lasted longer than Stoops. Kirby Smart capped his sixth season at Georgia in January with a national title.

Kentucky matched its best season under Stoops a year ago, finishing 10-3 after a Citrus Bowl win over Iowa that earned the Wildcats the No. 18 spot in the final AP poll. It was the second time in four years that Kentucky won 10 games and finished in the top 20.

Consistency counts on the field and in recruiting, where it helped Stoops sign former Penn State quarterback Will Levis as a graduate transfer after the 2020 season. Levis, who started only two games in two seasons with the Nittany Lions, wanted stability, and he found it in Stoops.

During his recruitment, Levis said, Stoops "was adamant that it would be a long time before he would even consider leaving Kentucky. I knew he would be a constant for me."

Levis became a constant threat to opposing defenses in his first year at Kentucky, earning multiple awards as national quarterback of the week. One highlight: Putting up 419 yards of offense and five touchdowns against Tennessee. Another: Hanging 42 points on LSU, the most by a Kentucky team in a regulation game.

The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Levis earned the ultimate compliment from his head coach, who said, "We have a beast of a quarterback."

"His talent kind of speaks for itself, but he has all the intangibles to be a franchise guy at the next level," Stoops said. "I know he is with us. He's a special player."

Levis isn't just a muscular passer and runner. He's a leader who turned his own NIL deal to play golf for free at a local course into a weekly league with 15 teammates. Because his presence was required at SEC Media Days, Levis had to miss their outing Wednesday, "which is a bummer," he said.

Levis is doing his best to ignore the buzz building around him as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick next spring. That status is enhanced because he played for one coordinator with NFL experience last year in Liam Coen and will play for another this year in Rich Scangarello, who arrived from the 49ers after Coen left to join the Super Bowl champion Rams.

Levis has worked with five different coordinators as a college quarterback, he said, but being mentored by "two geniuses" in Coen and Scangarello "is definitely a perk for me."

As is having Stoops back to set records in Lexington. The coach did admit that it will be special to catch and pass Bryant in career wins with the Wildcats. Not for him, but for his mother. She'll have two sons who stand as the winningest coach at an FBS program. Mark's brother Bob owns that distinction at Oklahoma. Oh, and brother Mike has joined Mark's Kentucky staff as the inside linebackers coach.

"That's really the only focus I have," Stoops said, "on my mother to be able to be there and share in that moment. I want her to be there."