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December 2, 2012

Column: Despite distractions, Stoops comes through

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It would have been easy for Mark Stoops' mind to wander, to call this last game without the fervor or the focus that made his defense so successful at Florida State.

It would have been easy to make this week all about Kentucky, a place with plenty of problems to ponder and a place where he'll be introduced as a college head coach for the first time on Sunday.

It would have been easy for Stoops to let his defense lose concentration, to sleepwalk through a week of distraction stirred with a mediocre opponent and the brain freeze of a complex offense.

We've seen that sort of thing before.

But when it comes to Saturday's result, Stoops didn't do any of that, which says something about Stoops The Coach.

Instead of daydreams of green (or blue) pastures, Stoops had butterflies and anxiousness about finishing the job.

On his way out the door, Stoops got his group to give him one more big game and one more big stop. When FSU's offense went stagnant in the second half, his defense stepped up, thwarting the Yellow Jackets' comeback attempt in the final two minutes to help the 'Noles to their first ACC Championship since 2005.

"I did feel it this week," Stoops said. "I felt an enormous amount of stress and pressure really I just put on myself because it would have been really hard to not play well and not help this team win this championship.

"I was excited, very excited for our players. It's a special group. That's a special group to coach right there, and I'm just awfully proud of their effort. It was fun. It was good to go out and win a championship."

Stoops' unit held Georgia Tech to 301 total yards and 15 points and contained the Yellow Jackets' vaunted triple option ground attack to 3.5 yards per carry. As FSU's offense faltered - it totaled just 97 total yards and three turnovers on six second-half possessions - and Georgia Tech clawed back, making it feel like N.C. State all over again, Karlos Williams closed the door with an interception.

In the face of a wild week - Stoops was named the Wildcats' head coach on Tuesday - he made a point to keep himself and his players on task.

"We addressed (the distraction) it a little bit, but I think the guys were genuinely excited for me, they felt like it was the right time and I was prepared to go do it," Stoops said. "But you know, this was about them and it was about preparing and we weren't going to let anything take us off track. We were focused as a group, just like they've been for the past three years. It's a great group to coach and they deserve it."

**************

Stoops' garnet hat and black jacket fended off all of the ice and cold liquid it could. His players hugged and headlocked and grabbed at him like a freshly fumbled football.

The FSU band chanted "Thank you Coach" after the trophy presentation. Player after player, coach after coach stopped to deliver their goodbye to Stoops, who in three seasons transformed the FSU defense from dismal to dominant. The moments seemed so genuine and painted the picture: Stoops earned love from his players and the respect of his peers, which says something about Stoops The Man.

Surely those feelings come from things like his final public comments as FSU's defensive coordinator, when Stoops made sure to give credit to defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot, who handled most of Saturday's defensive scheming since he was more familiar with facing the triple option.

The players expressed what Stoops meant to them.

"I told (Stoops) that I love him," said junior safety Lamarcus Joyner, a former first five-star prospect who bought into Stoops before his first season, signing with FSU in 2010. "He means a lot to me."

"Man, I love Coach Stoops, it hurt me he has to go," said sophomore defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, a stopgap in Stoops' defensive front who tallied nine tackles and a sack on Saturday. "But I understand that, he had to make the right decision for him and his family. We just had to send him out of here the right way. I've got nothing but love and respect for Coach Stoops."

Stoops basked in the scene.

"It was special," Stoops said of the postgame celebration. "(It's) just really hard to describe because we've come a long way. The group works extremely hard, we care genuinely about each other, so it meant a lot to all of us.

"I was soaking it all in and just felt good - it would have been very, very difficult to walk out of here and not win this game (Saturday) and not win a championship. It would be a bad feeling for me because we've worked too hard and come too far over the years. They deserved it, the program deserved it."

**************

Call it personnel, call it coaching or call it a combination of both, but Stoops will be remembered as the headliner for FSU's three-year defensive transformation. He inherited the No. 108 defense and left it in the nation's top 10 in every major category. A once-bare cupboard is filled with quality players, a group that seems destined to withstand the loss of several key cogs following its Orange Bowl appearance on Jan. 1.

That says something about Florida State's future, even as Stoops moves on.

"(The future) is tremendous. They're good players, really good players and good kids," Stoops said. "It'll be next man up. Really, if you think about it, has it not been our motto all year? We lost one guy, the next guy went in and did heck of a job."

Who will the next man be at defensive coordinator? Right now, it's anyone's guess. But one thing is clear: Florida State, its head coach and its fanbase can only hope it's someone who will win the hearts of his players and the respect of his fellow coaches and a coach who keep the defense stingy.

And maybe FSU can find a guy who will keep focus in a high stakes situation, even when it would be easy to have both feet out of the door.



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