As Kentucky prepares for its annual November battle with Tennessee, many across the Big Blue Nation are focused on retaining a commitment. No, not one of the numerous verbal commitments to join in Kentucky’s 2020 Signing Day class, but head coach Mark Stoops. With all due respect to the various Jimmys and Joes, the man who draws the Xs and Os is even more important to the Kentucky program’s future.

When news leaked that Florida State was firing disappointing second-year coach Willie Taggart, Stoops was among the names mentioned as a potential replacement. Given his history with FSU (Stoops was defensive coordinator there from 2010-2012) and his recent success (Stoops is positioning Kentucky for its 4th consecutive bowl berth and was SEC Coach of the Year in 2018), Stoops was one of the more immediate suggestions of national media as FSU’s next potential head coach.

While the tide of news has suggested it might be Stoops’ brother, Bob, who nabs the job (or not, as these rumor mills change the story by the second, sometimes literally while they are being written), retaining Mark Stoops is a matter of key concern to Kentucky.

The Wildcats have sweetened Stoops’ contract multiple times since his improvement from hot seat status to middle of the SEC pack early in the 2016 season. At present, Stoops’s base salary is $4.75 million in 2019 and is set to increase by $250,000 every season through 2024-25.

The contract extends a year automatically every time Stoops wins 7 games, and by 2 years every time he wins 10 games. He also gets a bonus for every additional win from his 9th of a given year. It is a more than fair deal.

Stoops is 40-43 at Kentucky going into this weekend’s games (or 38-33 since a horrific first team he inherited with FCS level talent, or 28-19 over the past 4 seasons).

With a 4-1 finish to the season, he’d arrive at .500 overall, and the last Kentucky coach to finish his UK career at a break-even mark or better was Blanton Collier, who left after the 1961 season. Stoops is the 2nd-longest tenured head coach in the SEC, trailing only Nick Saban. Bear Bryant’s Kentucky record of 60 victories could easily be within reach … if Kentucky can keep Stoops from following Bear’s path to another school’s head coaching job.

As much as anything, Kentucky still has to fight the perception that it’s a basketball school, that it’s wandering in the desert for decades after Bryant isn’t just the result of a culture that doesn’t care about competitive football. While it tentatively looks as if UK might have dodged a Florida State bullet, if Stoops keeps winning, there’ll be other jobs, more speculation.

Kentucky has improved its facilities, has ponied up sufficient money to keep not only Stoops but his staff pleased and well-paid, and has ultimately done about as much as a historical have-not can do to keep its coach.

The X factor in the equation is probably how happy Stoops is about coaching in Lexington.

As in any fan base, there is a persistent minority of fans — likely basketball holdovers — who seem to expect top 10 seasons every year. But the vast majority of Kentucky’s fan base seems to recognize the slow but steady path that Stoops has taken is the surest way to climb out of the SEC cellar. This season will be the first time that Stoops hasn’t post as many or more wins than the year before … and coming off Kentucky’s first 10-win campaign since 1977, that was almost inevitable.

The question to be determined is whether 2019 will also be Stoops’ last season at Kentucky. And that answer will have more to do with defining 2020 and beyond in Lexington than any 5-star recruit can.