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Mark Stoops already knows it. This year’s Citrus Bowl “will be different” from any of the other 111 games he’s participated in as head coach at Kentucky.
That’s because he — and brothers Bob and Mike — has a long history with the black and gold jerseys he’ll be seeing from the east sideline at Camping World Stadium.
“It's hard to put into words what the Iowa program has meant to us,” Stoops said as he took a break from a recruiting trip for a Sunday night Zoom call.
He might’ve been more familiar with the Hawkeyes than any other 12-year-old in the history of Youngstown, Ohio. From 1979 to 1984, at least one of his brothers was wearing an Iowa uniform.
That meant a lot of trips across three state lines to see games at Kinnick Stadium. It was rather routine.
“My dad coaching on Friday night, getting in the car, driving 10 hours, arriving in the morning, watching my brothers play and staying Saturday night,” Stoops said.
By Sunday, they were “getting back in the car, driving another 10 hours back home.”
After Ron Stoops Sr. died suddenly from a massive heart attack when Mark was 21 and on the Hawkeyes, the family put Mark’s “very neatly folded” Hawkeyes game jersey in the casket.
Iowa’s coaches, including then-head coach Hayden Fry and then-defensive coordinator Bill Brazier, “were really like fathers” to Stoops.
“When my father passed during the season, they took a plane and came to my father's funeral,” Stoops said. “It just shows you what kind of people they are.”
Stoops doesn’t mince words about his lack of on-field success. The former defensive back played 18 games and recorded two interceptions.
“I might have to break out a few (clips) for the players to give them a few laughs during the bowl practice,” Stoops said. “I was not very impressive as a player, that's for sure.”
It came to an abrupt end, too.
“I got back from my father's funeral on Wednesday and blew out my knee against Michigan on Saturday,” Stoops said.
Like his three brothers — the Youngstown State alum Ron Jr. and the other two former Iowa players — Stoops went into coaching.
“He had no choice,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It seems to be in the Stoops blood. All of the boys are coaches.”
Stoops started on Fry’s staff as a graduate assistant for two years. Then he coached high school for four years before South Florida hired him as its defensive backs coach in 1996. It was his first full-time coaching position at the college level.
He then worked his way up the collegiate ranks with stops at Wyoming, Houston, Miami (Fla.), Arizona and Florida State before earning the head-coaching job at Kentucky at the end of the 2012 season.
From a distance, Ferentz noticed Stoops “started out by building a great foundation and wasn't trying to do a quick fix.”
“They certainly selected the right person with Mark,” Ferentz said. “Mark's done just a wonderful job building that thing brick by brick.”
That approach has taken Stoops and the Wildcats to five consecutive bowl games. Kentucky won the last three, too, including a 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl after the 2018 season.
Stoops attributes much of his success — and his brothers’ success — to the same place he’d constantly be driving 10 hours to as a kid. Iowa.
“It really helped shape a lot of what we became,” Stoops said.
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