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John Clay: It's the longtime UK football fans who appreciate the job Stoops has done

Lexington Herald-Leader — John Clay Lexington Herald-Leader

Oct. 18-- Oct. 18--Let's give it up for Mark Stoops.

I know, I know, there are still six games left in this All-SEC football season. Some especially tough games, too. At Alabama. At Florida. At home to Georgia, though not this Saturday, as originally planned, but Oct. 31, just in time for Halloween. In the nation's toughest conference, your fortunes can change in the blink of an eye. Ask 1-2 LSU.

Still, this is a good time to take a step back and admire Stoops' work. In 2018, his Cats beat Florida for the first time in 31 years, knocking the off the Gators 27-16 in Gainesville. Then Saturday, his Cats beat Tennessee at Tennessee for the first time since 1984, snapping a 17-game losing streak there. Not just beat them, whipped them, winning 34-7.

It goes beyond the streak-snapping, however. After Kentucky started the season 0-2, losing a 42-41 overtime heartbreaker at Ole Miss, you heard the usual cries of how the Wildcats might not win a game all year, how offensive coordinator Eddie Gran had to go, how the program wasn't up to playing a 10-game schedule of nothing but SEC opponents.

Two weeks later, the Cats are 2-2. They became the first team to hold a Mike Leach-coached offense without a single point while picking off six passes in a 24-2 win over Mississippi State. Saturday, they returned two second-quarter interceptions for touchdowns on the way to thrashing Tennessee.

"What Brad White has done the last 2 weeks is special. Giving up only 7 points in 2 games! Fantastic. They scored more than they gave up," tweeted former UK coach and class act Rich Brooks, who added, "Getting backups snaps for players at Tenn just feels good."

Stoops is now 46-46 as the Kentucky coach. He's 18-18 over his last 36 SEC games. Remember, Blanton Collier (1954-61) was the last Kentucky coach to post a winning record at UK. Bear Bryant (1946-53) was the last coach to post a winning SEC record.

So while Kentucky was dominating the Vols on Saturday, I couldn't help but think of my father's first cousin, Tommy Catlett, who passed away Friday at the age of 88. A bigger Kentucky football fan you will not find. Once I met someone who told me she sat in the same section at Commonwealth Stadium as Tommy Catlett. You know Tommy, I said. "Oh yes," she replied. "Everyone in our section knows Tommy Catlett."

The day the news broke that Kentucky was hiring the defensive coordinator at Florida State to be its next head football coach, I talked to Tommy that evening. "Do you think this is the guy who can get it done?" he asked.

Four bowl games and a 10-win season later, Tommy's brother, Mark, himself a former UK grad assistant under Jerry Claiborne and former Louisville high school coach, told me, "You really have to be a longtime Kentucky football fan to really appreciate the job Mark Stoops has done here."

That's so true. And Stoops hasn't done it with tricks or gimmicks. He has built his program on solid rock, as the saying goes. His offense is built on physicality and a strong running game. It no doubt took the former defensive coordinator a little longer than he would have liked to build a strong defense, but from 2018 through Saturday, few schools have been more consistent on that side of the ball.

Said Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt on Saturday, "I just want to give credit to Coach Stoops and his staff. They did a really nice job and always do."

Before COVID, a loyal section of Big Blue Nation always made the biennial trip to Knoxville only to have its hopes dashed once again. Until five years ago, when his late wife Barbara began experiencing health problems, Tommy Catlett was one of those fans. He had been to every Kentucky-Tennessee football game, home or away. You talk about someone who would have enjoyed Saturday's outcome. But then, looking down, I have a feeling he did.

Next game

Kentucky at Missouri

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

TV: SEC Network

Records: UK 2-2; Missouri 1-2

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