Mark Stoops ties Bear Bryant's UK football coaching milestone. Why his players had no idea

Brooks Holton
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — During his first nine seasons leading the Kentucky football team, head coach Mark Stoops didn't shy away from enjoying victories.

At first, wins were hard to come by. Now, they're piling up — and redefining expectations.

So, how did the man who once broke a ceiling tile crowd-surfing at Missouri and called into Kentucky Sports Radio to talk about the cigar and bourbon he planned to savor after beating Tennessee in Neyland Stadium for the first time since 1984 celebrate the victory that tied him with Paul "Bear" Bryant for the most by a head coach in UK history? In a manner so unassuming that one player said he and his teammates had no idea anything historic had occurred.

"I'm gonna be honest, I don't think we knew that he did that," junior offensive lineman Eli Cox said after Kentucky defeated Miami (Ohio) 37-13 on Saturday for Stoops' 60th win at the helm. "He didn't mention it to us at any point, and he didn't mention it after the game.

"That's just kinda how he is, you know? This week's over; we're moving on to next week. He's not much for gloating or things like that."

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Stoops' record-tying win fittingly came against the same team he beat for victory No. 1 at UK on Sept. 7, 2013. His program, however, couldn't be at a more different place in Year 10 than it was back then.

On Saturday, fans flew flags in the Kroger Field parking lot that proclaimed Kentucky is a "football school," a reference to Stoops' public beef with basketball coach John Calipari that prompted a response from athletics director Mitch Barnhart in August. Those same fans likely walked into the stadium with the expectation that the Wildcats are destined for the postseason after winning the last four of their six consecutive bowl appearances.

Not a bad turnaround for a head coach who inherited a two-year bowl drought that stretched to five years before he first led UK back to the postseason.

"Coach is so humble he'll deflect all the praise, but he deserves the majority of it," said defensive coordinator Brad White, who joined Stoops' staff prior to Kentucky's 10-win 2018 season.

"I've been lucky. I've been sort of on the uptick, you know?" White added. "I didn't have to be on the ground floor and really grind through some of the tough building-block moments, but it's just a testament to how much he loves this program, how much he loves the kids (and) the coaching staff."

Stoops' milestone was mentioned by a UK Athletics staffer when the head coach sat down for his postgame news conference, but it appeared to be the last thing on his mind. He instead chose to focus on where his team needs to make the most improvement before beginning Southeastern Conference play in Week 2 at Florida, which upset No. 7 Utah on Saturday.

"I don't have any thoughts," Stoops said when asked about tying Bryant's record, which has weathered 11 coaching changes across 69 years. "I want to make it very clear that I absolutely respect (the record) and I'm very appreciative to be here a long time and have the opportunity to win this many games."

The head coach then turned to a bit of self-deprecation to underscore the Wildcats' room for growth.

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"You can't put my name in the same (sentence) as Bear Bryant, you know, in the long run," Stoops said. "If I was competing for six national championships, let's talk about that. But I am grateful to win that many games, to be here this long, and we have a long way to go. I'm excited to keep building this program. Really, the focus is on next week. Normally, we talk about enjoying it, you know, but it seems like everybody in there is ready to get to work and get on next week and try to get better. That's not just coach-speak — it's really just kinda how we feel."

So the celebration is on hold, for now. A record-breaking victory in The Swamp next Saturday may be enough to warrant some bourbon and a cigar, but beating the Gators isn't the anomaly it once was for a team that thinks it has a shot at reaching the SEC championship for the first time in program history with Stoops calling the shots.

"We'll try to heap the praise on him," White said, "cause he won't do it on himself."

Reach recruiting and trending sports reporter Brooks Holton at bholton@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.