‘It’s hard to put into words:’ Citrus Bowl a reunion for former Hawkeye Mark Stoops

Stoops, now the head coach at Kentucky, played defensive back and served as a graduate assistant at Iowa under Hayden Fry. The Hawkeyes face the Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.

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Robert Read, Pregame Editor


Kirk Ferentz can still recall when, during his time as Iowa’s offensive line coach under Hayden Fry in the 1980s, he strolled past Bill Brashier’s office and saw the defensive coordinator chatting alongside a baby-faced recruit with a familiar last name.

That player, Mark Stoops, later became the third Stoops brother to play defensive back for Brashier and Fry at Iowa — despite early impressions.

“Later on, we had a staff meeting after the recruiting weekend and Bill made the comment, he goes, ‘You know, if this wasn’t a Stoops, I would have sworn there’s no way this guy is going to be a college football player,’” Ferentz said. “His point was that Mark at that time probably looked like he was 15 — just a really young-looking high school senior. Certainly, it panned out.”

Stoops played for the Hawkeyes from 1986-88. When his time playing in the Black and Gold ended, he became a graduate assistant under Fry. On Sunday, Ferentz and Stoops, in his ninth year as the head coach at Kentucky, found out that they will have a reunion of sorts to start the new year. The No. 15 Hawkeyes (10-3) and the No. 22 Wildcats (9-3) will meet in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, on Jan. 1. Stoops already knows this game will have a different feeling than the other 111 he’s coached at Kentucky.

“It’s hard to put into words what the Iowa program has meant to us,” Stoops said.

The New Year’s Day game will provide Stoops his first opportunity to serve as head coach in a game against his alma mater.

Seeing the black and gold Hawkeye uniforms on the opposite sideline will be a strange feeling for Stoops, who grew up rooting for Iowa. From 1979-84, Stoops had at least one brother — Bob and/or Mike Stoops — playing at Iowa. Both Bob and Mike also spent time as graduate assistants in Iowa City. Stoops remembers being a child and getting into the car with his father, Ron Stoops Sr., on crisp fall mornings to make 10-hour drives from Youngstown, Ohio, to Kinnick Stadium to watch his brothers play on the gridiron.

Former Iowa linebackers coach Barry Alvarez, who was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his work as a head coach at Wisconsin, recruited Stoops to Iowa, too. Rather than go to conference power Ohio State or play for Michigan State, who had current Alabama head coach Nick Saban recruiting him, Stoops decided to continue his family legacy at Iowa.

“I might have to break out a few [clips] for the players to give them a few laughs during the bowl practice,” Stoops joked. “I was not very impressive as a player, that’s for sure.”

In his time in a Hawkeye uniform, Stoops played in 18 games and intercepted two passes. Off the field, Stoops may not have known at the time that the Hawkeye football program would be there when he needed it most.

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As a 21-year-old, Stoops learned that his father had died of a massive heart attack while coaching in a high school football game. Stoops left Iowa in the middle of the week while the Hawkeyes prepared for a game against Michigan that weekend and went back home to Youngstown for his father’s funeral.

To Stoops’ surprise, an upcoming game didn’t stop Fry and his staff from attending the funeral.

“Paid his respects to my mom and our family, and it just meant the world to us,” Stoops said after Fry died at the age of 90 in 2019. “To take that kind of time and to go [to the funeral] that far in season just tells us what type of man he was. Had a great influence on me, certainly my brothers and our whole family.

“It just shows you what kind of people they are,” Stoops added this week about Fry and Brashier on Sunday. “They were really like fathers to me during my time there. And they were just such great people, such a great organization.”

Ron Stoops Sr. was buried with a No. 41 (the number Bob, Mike, and Mark all wore) Iowa football jersey neatly folded next to him in the casket.

Later that same week, Stoops said he returned to practice and tore up his knee, quickly bringing his career to an abrupt end. With his time suiting up on the football field over, Stoops decided to follow his brothers and father and go into coaching. Bob (Oklahoma) and Mike (Arizona) Stoops have also been head coaches at the Power Five level, while Mark’s other brother, Ron Stoops Jr., is in his 10th year as an assistant coach at Youngstown State after a lengthy career coaching high school football like his father.

“It seems to be in the Stoops’ blood,” Ferentz said of Mark Stoops getting into coaching. “It’s a great family.”

After wrapping up his tenure at Iowa after the 1991 season, Stoops bounced around various assistant coaching jobs, including as the defensive backs coach at Miami in the early 2000s, where he instructed Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, among other notable Hurricanes. Mark also worked for Mike at Arizona from 2004-09.

Mark was named the head coach at Kentucky in 2012. In nearly a decade leading the Wildcats, Stoops has amassed a record of 58-53. After going 2-10 in his first season, and 5-7 records in his second and third seasons, Kentucky is making its sixth straight bowl appearance and going for its fourth straight postseason win.

“It’s going to mean a lot. It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure,” center Tyler Linderbaum said about the matchup with the Wildcats. “Obviously, 11-3 sounds a lot better than 10-4. That’s going to be our goal. It doesn’t happen often around here, 11 wins in this program. Our team’s been through a lot this year. To get that 11th win is going to mean a lot to us. We’re going to have to work hard and prepare our butts off for this game.”

Earlier this season, Stoops signed a contract extension that would keep him in Lexington through at least 2027.

“Just knowing the way Mark approaches things and looking from afar, my sense is he started out by building a great foundation and wasn’t trying to do a quick fix,” said Ferentz, who has previously gone head-to-head in coaching matchups against both Bob and Mike Stoops. “I personally think that’s the way to go about it. You’re trying to build something that’s gonna last it seems like and appears from a distance he’s had great support from the administration.

“Mark’s done just a wonderful job building that thing brick by brick.”

Kentucky’s most prominent bowl win under Stoops was in the 2019 Citrus Bowl, when the Wildcats defeated Penn State. There’s only one thing standing in Kentucky’s way of another marquee bowl win.

It happens to be the program Stoops said helped shape him into the coach and person he is today.

“Hayden Fry and all the assistant coaches, the people of Iowa, everybody was just so good to us during our time there,” Stoops said. “It really helped shape a lot of what we became. And the success we’ve had has a lot to do with the roots of Iowa, with Hayden, and coach Ferentz … Just nothing but fond memories from the Hawkeye experience.”

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