HOOVER, Ala. — Mark Stoops looked out into the sea of faces, the first-year Kentucky head coach all too familiar with the dejected expressions he received in return.
Stoops saw the same thing from his players a few seasons ago at Florida State, where his defense helped the Seminoles return to national prominence.
“It was amazing to me to see how low and disappointed, you know, not a lot of confidence there at Florida State,” Stoops recalled Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “Same thing at Kentucky. You felt like guys were a little beat down, a little bit lacking some confidence.
”I see us improving. Obviously, time will tell.“
While change of much more epic proportions cannot be expected at one of the SEC's perennial punching bags, Stoops has breathed enthusiasm into a program without a conference win in 2012 or a bowl bid since 2009.
Playing to a half-empty stadium during a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt, Kentucky players suddenly were greeted by a reported crowd of 50,831 for the spring game.
It was a sight senior running back Raymond Sanders never thought he would see following three consecutive losing seasons under former head coach Joker Phillips.
”You walked down the Cat Walk and just saw lines and lines of people, floods of Kentucky people,“ Sanders said. ”I was like, ‘Wow.’ I never thought about 50,000 at our spring game. I always knew Alabama and places like that had a lot of people.
“It's up to us to keep them there and keep them supporting us.”
Kentucky fans hoping for a winning season in 2013 are likely to be disappointed. But Stoops, the youngest of four coaching brothers, is not selling a long-term rebuilding project, either.
“The educated fans knows where we're at as a program, know we have a lot of work to do,” said Stoops, one of four new head coaches in the SEC. “But the flipside of that is I want the excitement. I want them to support our players that we have on our team right now.
”We plan on going out and competing each and every week.“
It will be difficult, to say the least.
During a five-week, four-game stretch beginning Sept. 14, the Wildcats will face 2013 Sugar Bowl champion Louisville, SEC powers Florida and South Carolina and reigning national champion Alabama.
Before facing that gauntlet, Kentucky hopes to avenge a shocking home loss in overtime to Western Kentucky in the teams' season-opener. Now coached by Bobby Petrino, the Hilltoppers wildly celebrated their 32-31 win on the field at Commonwealth Stadium, one of the low points of Kentucky's season.
When it mercifully ended, defensive tackle Donte Rumph experienced a range of emotions.
”Confused, lost . . .,“ he said. ”But coach Stoops came in and lit a fire in us. We got going. We got motivated. We got fans excited again. We got everyone involved in UK football.
“That's what it's all about.”
The future has brightened under Stoops beyond fan buy-in.
Last month, the Wildcats briefly reached No. 1 in one recruiting service's rankings, a given for John Calipari's basketball program but unheard of in Kentucky football. With a new coach and major renovations to the football stadium and facilities to sell recruits, the Wildcats currently sit No. 13 on 247sports.com list of rankings ahead of LSU, the Gators and a myriad of national powers.
“It's great for our program,” Sanders said. “We're just hoping he can continue to bring in great guys and keep improving, and the momentum is just going to help Kentucky football get back on the map.”
The Wildcats have not played in a major bowl game since Bear Bryant was coach in the early 1950s. But Kentucky has had its pockets of success, including four straight minor bowl game appearances under Rich Brooks (2006-09) and even spent a week in the top 10 rankings in 2007.
In time, Stoops hopes to give fans what they want.
“The people are starving to have a good football program,” he said.