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Mark Stoops is still seven weeks from his first game in the Governor’s Cup series, but the new UK head coach is already learning about the Wildcats’ rivalry with the Louisville Cardinals.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, as we know, but it’s not something we’re not used to — coaching in rivalry games,” Stoops said Wednesday at the annual Governor’s Cup Luncheon. “It’s just as important, if not more important, than anywhere I’ve been. So I embrace that and look forward to the challenge.”
Stoops’ first official introduction to the rivalry came Tuesday at the annual news conference and golf event that brings the head coach of UofL and UK together along with the governor.
Speaking after UofL head coach Charlie Strong, whose team will look to top its 2012 Orange Bowl victory, Stoops opened his comments that he may need former Wildcats Frank Lemaster and Joe Koch, who were honored at the event, to suit up this fall.
“I know you guys look pretty good,” he said with a laugh. “Charlie’s got a pretty good team coming back. We need a little work. Let’s see if you guys can play a few quarters for us.”
Stoops has made no attempt to refute the popular idea that the 2013 season will be a rebuilding one for the Wildcats, who are coming off a 2-10 season in the final year of the Joker Phillips Era. In recent weeks, Stoops has repeatedly talked about sticking with “the process” of developing a consistent winner.
“We need to get better,” he said. “I can’t worry about wins and losses and the end results at all right now. It’s all about the process, getting better. I think our players will know if we’re getting better or not, and I think recruits will know whether we’re improving or not, where this program is headed.”
Stoops could go a long way in continuing the impressive momentum he has built in recruiting since being named UK’s head coach in Novemeber with an early-season win versus the highly touted Cardinals.
The game will likely be important for UofL as well as even a struggling UK team would represent a relative quality win on a schedule that has been widely criticized for a lack of quality opponents in the Cardinals’ only season in the newly formed American Athletic Conference.
“It’s big,” Strong said. “It’s an in-state game. You look at your two major universities within this state, and you love this game. But then, you know what? You go play the game, they go play in the Southeastern Conference and we go play in our conference.”
Strong is 2-1 in three games versus UK as UofL’s head coach with the Cardinals winning the teams’ previous two meetings.
Both of those wins came against former UK coach Joker Phillips. Since Stoops took over the program in November, the Cats have experienced unprecedented success in recruiting, even briefly ascending No. 1 in the national 2014 Rivals.com class rankings.
Strong said the buzz Stoops has created at UK is not on his radar, but he maintains success at both programs is good for the state.
“You know he’s going to do an outstanding job,” Strong said of Stoops. “The only program we can look at is our program, take care of what we have.”
Asked what he will tell his team about playing in Lexington versus the Cats this season, Strong was quick to note he has two games to think about before the UK game came up on the schedule and that his team would not prepare any differently than it would for other road games. Stoops also noted the importance of starting off the season on a positive note in the opener versus Western Kentucky before his team can think about the Cardinals.
Still, the new Wildcat head coach made no attempt to downplay the significance of the rivalry.
“Let’s face it: it’s important,” he said. “All of you folks are here to talk about one game that’s our third game into the season. We play Western in our opener. When this time comes to prepare for Louisville, of course it’s important. It’s important to a lot of people in this state. It’s important to our players. It’s important to our fans. We want to deliver for those people.”
UK/UofL game appears safe for near future
Speculation that the SEC could expand to a nine-game conference schedule in the coming years has lead many fans and commentators to speculate the Governor’s Cup rivalry could go by the wayside in that scenario.
For at least the next few years, that possibility appears remote.
“I don’t think we’re going to nine conference games at this point in time,” said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. “Through 2015 or so, we’re solid, maybe 2016, somewhere in that range. We’re not going to be at nine for a while, and if we are, that’s another conversation down the road.”
Both Barnhart and Stoops were frank that the their desire to continue the series could be affected by future conference scheduling issues. Those considerations could also affect if the current arrangement of playing the game in week one when it is in Louisville and week three when it is in Lexington is continued.
“We used to schedule five, six, seven, eight years down the road,” Barnhart said. “Now we’re scheduling two years down the road and hoping those schedules hold. So we’ll have to see what happens.”