Second-year Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was back in Ohio two weeks ago, as he almost always is, for the annual youth camp at his high school alma mater, Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.
That one was for fun, but Stoops has been coming back to Ohio on plenty of business trips, too.
Like, as many as the NCAA allows.
Stoops has the very tall task of turning the University of Kentucky’s second — at best — favorite sport into a progam that can win in the brutally-tough SEC. It’s not going to be an easy project, nor a short one, but it’s one Stoops clearly saw as doable when he left a pretty good gig as defensive coordinator at Florida State to take it on.
He sees Ohio as an important part of that project. He’s been recruiting Ohio since the moment he took the job, and he said he "absolutely" thinks going into what’s never really been SEC country can help the fight towards SEC respectability — and eventually even more.
"There are a lot of good players in Ohio," Stoops said. "It’s very important to me given my roots here in Ohio but I also know the quality of football that’s played here and the number of quality players that come out of here.
"There are enough (recruits in Ohio) to go around. We want to recruit with anybody here. When we look at the landscape and trying to build this thing how we want it, getting players out of Ohio is a really, really important thing."
Stoops already has 12 commitments from players in the class of 2015, five from Ohio.
Last February, Scout.com ranked the first class Stoops and Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow — also a Youngstown native — as the 18th best class nationally. Among Kentucky’s 24 signees in the class of 2014 were 11 Ohio natives.
It’s not just Stoops and Marrow playing to their roots; it’s a numbers game, too. Kentucky is getting players from across Ohio in addition to traditional recruiting areas such as Georgia and South Carolina, marking a shift from past philosophies and an effort to tap into a talent-rich area.
"Under previous regimes Kentucky recruited almost exclusively in the South," Scout.com recruiting analyst Bill Greene said earlier this year. "This is going where the new staff is known, but it’s more than that. It’s offering the chance to play in the SEC, the chance for guys to get on the field early and be a part of something, the chance to really build some momentum.
"The Stoops name is known everywhere, and Vince Marrow is one of the best assistant coaches in America. He can recruit with anybody, and that’s starting to show. There’s some excitement around Kentucky football."
Last year’s Kentucky team wasn’t very good. It was 2-10, 0-8 in the SEC, and had just one win over a Div. I-FBS opponent. So, it’s not just recruiting against the Auburns, Alabamas and LSUs of the college football world.
It’s playing against them, too.
"Obviously that first year is very difficult," Stoops said. "We’ve spent 18 months trying to get our feet on the ground and just get through the transition that goes on when a new staff comes in, when a new start comes and players kind of come and go.
"Our players need to know what’s expected of them. Our coaching staff needs to know the players, their strengths and where we need to go. That’s coming along. That comfort level is so important. Nothing’s going to come easy in the SEC so there’s no shortcut. It really is a day to day thing; we don’t have the luxury of (taking) days off.
"We’re out to compete and win each and every game. It’s real important for us to have the opportunity to win every week and then start doing it."
Bringing in better players is the most important step. Getting those players on the same page and to improve — it’s fairly obvious jobs are open for talented freshmen, if they’re ready — is another step. Stoops sees progress, but knows seeing wins to match and solidify that won’t be easy.
"I feel very optimistic about our future," he said. "I feel good about the way things are going. We still haven’t done anything yet. We’re still looking for progress, but I like where we’re heading.
"I just want to see consistent improvement. The desire to prepare to win. The desire to go about our business every single day, to maximize our potential every day. There is potential. We need to see that work every single day towards turning that potential into something. If we do the work, we’ll go play the best we can every Saturday and see what happens."