When Mark Stoops was introduced as Kentucky's head football coach he talked at length about believing the program with precious little sustained success could challenge the Southeastern Conference's elite. His belief was rooted in thumbing his nose at the established order with a 'Why not Kentucky?' mantra.
Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot is part of a young Wildcats' coaching staff
That battle cry played a considerable role in Stoops' hiring of a coaching staff, which the first time head coach admitted was born in some ways out of wanting coaches who aren't afraid of the challenge ahead.
“I felt like the mold that I wanted was some guys that really had a little chip on their shoulder, wanted to prove something,” Stoops said.
Enter a mostly complete staff where the offensive and defensive coordinators are 36 (D.J. Eliot) and 32 (Neal Brown) years old. Three other assistants are 37 years old or younger with the average age of the staff – which still needs to fill two spots – hovering at 38 years old. By comparison, Joker Phillips' staff had an average age of 52 years old.
“That fit very nicely with the coordinators and the rest of the staff,” Stoops said. “To start with, with the coordinators, to get two great, young, up-and-coming coordinators that have done it, that have been in big-time situations and called games.”
There is a decidedly Kentucky flavor to the staff as well. Brown, offensive assistant Chad Scott and offensive line coach John Schlarman all spent at least part of their collegiate playing careers at Kentucky, with Brown and Schlarman being natives of the Commonwealth. Schlarman's wife, Lee Anne, is the daughter of former UK linebacker Joe Federspiel while Scott married former UK basketball player Shambrica Jones.
Stoops made no bones about the fact he wanted to surround himself with some people he felt understood the unique challenges of Kentucky football.
“Very (important) – as long as they fit in with what we’re trying to do and with the whole staff and have the qualifications,” Stoops said. “It was important to me. I’ll rely on those guys. That was important in my decision, but more importantly was (Brown) was a great offensive coordinator and they’re great offensive coaches.”
Brown's return to Kentucky has been hailed by fans who have long yearned for a return to the high-powered offensive system favored by former coach Hal Mumme. Brown represents a tie to that era, although his version of the 'Air Raid' offense made famous by Mumme and Mike Leach has its nuances.
“I really liked the style that Neal ran at Texas Tech,” Stoops said. “I know the problems that he presented for defenses. My brother has had to defend him. So, just very familiar with Neal and that whole system, going back to Mike Leach and our connection with Mike Leach and of course all the way back to Hal Mumme with that whole family of coaches.”
Eliot opted to come to Lexington with his former boss, which Stoops lauded as a major coup for Kentucky given the attention the former Florida State defensive ends coach was receiving.
“With coach Eliot, it was a tremendous hire for me,” Stoops said. “I was excited with the opportunity to bring coach Eliot. Obviously, I'm very familiar with him. He's very familiar with me. Had to fend off some people.
“It was important for me to be able to hire him here. He's fired up and ready to go and done a tremendous job, full of energy and organization and work ethic, the whole deal. Again, I'm just very excited I was able to hire both of those guys.”