HOOVER, Ala. — Five months after Mark Stoops was hired as Kentucky's football coach, 50,831 people showed up for the Wildcats' spring game.
That's about 30,000 more than basketball-mad Kentucky has had at a spring game. Ever.
It is a reflection of the excitement and great anticipation Stoops has brought to Lexington, promising to bring relevance to a long-suffering SEC football program.
Stoops, the Florida State defensive coordinator for the past two seasons (who also spent a season on USF's staff in 1996, the year before the Bulls program started playing games), has made serious recruiting headway while generating new excitement among Wildcats fans in a very short time.
"I'm excited about the opportunity we have at Kentucky," Stoops said at last week's SEC media days. "We understand there's a lot of hard work that lies ahead, but we're embracing that process and working hard each and every day to improve this team. I'm very encouraged with the way things have gone so far."
Stoops, 46, replaces Joker Phillips, the former Kentucky player and longtime assistant, who went 13-24 in three seasons. Almost immediately, Stoops made fans and players believe change is imminent.
"I knew where he came from and how he had turned the Florida State program around, so I was excited to have him as the head coach," senior defensive tackle Donte Rumph said. "I'm looking forward to the future with him. I'm proud to have him."
Among Stoops' immediate goals was recruiting, and he and his staff have gone all out in the past several months. The Wildcats currently have the No. 1 or No. 2 recruiting class in the nation for next season (depending on the recruiting service). Stoops has landed key players from Kentucky, and the native of Youngstown, Ohio, has made inroads in his home state.
"It's been my philosophy to branch right out into Ohio," Stoops said. "It just makes sense with the proximity of where southern Ohio lies with regards to Kentucky. Then with my ties throughout the whole state, growing up in northern Ohio, just really working hard all through Ohio. To build a program, one of the first things you have to have is talented players. So recruiting was a top priority."
Stoops warns that the turnaround will take time. Kentucky returns 13 starters, but from a team that finished 2-10 last season (0-8 SEC). And the Wildcats enter fall camp without a starting quarterback — three players are vying for the job — and many unproven players.
UK hosts Florida on Sept. 28.
"From what I've seen in the first 15 days of spring practice, we need to improve," Stoops said. "I think everybody understands that. We have to get better in all areas of our program. We have to continue to build more depth.
"But with that being said, it's our job to develop the players that we have, to put them in a position to be successful, and to go out there and compete each and every week. That's what we plan to do."
Whatever happens, there's no denying a buzz is surrounding Kentucky football.
"It's an amazing jump going from everybody losing faith to the fire being relit in Kentucky football," Rumph said. "I was so excited to see the big turnout at the spring game. I couldn't believe it.
"It's exciting, but it kind of puts a little bit of pressure on you, too, because you can't afford to mess up. There's not much room for error there. But we're excited and I'm just trying to embrace it all."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]