Former Florida State assistant coach Mark Stoops, center, and MSU assistant coach Terrell Buckley will square off against each other Saturday. Photo by: Florida State athletics
September 19, 2019 11:51:18 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley says he's still awaiting an invitation.
In the eight years since he and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops were assistants on Jimbo Fisher's staff at Florida State, the two have long tried to meet on a golf course.
Buckley had planned to join Stoops this past summer but dates didn't match up. Stoops maintains Buckley has simply avoided the challenge.
Former Miami standout Lamar Thomas -- Buckley's proclaimed best friend and a former assistant for Stoops at Kentucky -- said Buckley is sharp in his mid-iron game but struggles putting while Stoops is more erratic and quick moving through his rounds.
"(Buckley) loves the game," Thomas said. "And so does Stoops."
Just a piece of their persistent friendship, golf was among the initial interests Buckley and Stoops shared during their two-year overlap in Tallahassee between 2010 and 2011 -- a period in which the Seminoles finished 19-8 with wins in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and Champs Sports Bowl.
Though they won't meet on the manicured greens of Lexington Country Club -- where Stoops is a member -- or Keene Trace Golf Club -- his other local course of choice -- the two will collide on the finely trimmed grass at Davis Wade Stadium Saturday as Kentucky takes on Mississippi State in the Bulldogs' SEC opener.
"Both Mark and Terrell are outstanding coaches," Fisher said. "They did a great job at Florida State on our staff and I knew they both would have great careers in coaching... It should he a heck of a football game on Saturday."
A winning combination
Around northwest Florida, Buckley's name draws instant credibility.
After leaving Florida State in 1991, the three-year letter-winner concluded his Seminole career as the program's all-time leader in interceptions (21) and interception return yards (501) and tied school records for interception returns for a touchdown (four) and punt return touchdowns (three).
Buckley was also the 1991 Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back and finished the year seventh in the Heisman voting before being selected No. 5 overall in the 1992 NFL Draft.
For Stoops, his name was long synonymous with collegiate coaching upon his arrival at Florida State. A former Iowa defensive back, he spent time as an assistant at Miami, Wyoming and Arizona before arriving in Tallahassee.
His brother, Bob, was also the head coach at Oklahoma from 1999 to 2016.
"He made his mark everywhere he went," Thomas said of Mark.
A laid back guy by nature, Buckley -- a weight room coach at the time -- recalled walking into film rooms and seeing Stoops leaned back in a chair with his feet perched up on a table as he rolled through clips. He'd never seen a defensive coordinator so relaxed.
"When you understand the game, you understand what you want," Buckley told The Dispatch. "He showed it doesn't take 400 hours."
Battling against a Fisher and EJ Manuel-led offense that averaged 30.6 points per game in 2011, Stoops' defensive unit faced one of the nation's top offenses on a daily basis.
Manuel expressed how facing Stoops' group daily built momentum heading into Saturdays.
"If I could do my thing Monday through Friday against my own defense and my own coach, I knew I would have a chance to have success on Saturdays," he told The Dispatch.
As Stoops managed the defense, Buckley worked in the weight room and voluntarily served as an advisor off the field.
Each Sunday the one-time Seminole defensive back held optional meetings in which players could seek advice, academic support, or just chat about life.
Trotting into the football complex during his early days at Florida State, Manuel sought advice regarding his major. Initially an engineering student, he consulted Buckley on the idea.
A 14-year NFL veteran, Buckley was wholly cognizant quarterbacks often find their way to the broadcasting booth following their professional careers. As such, he suggested Manuel look into communications.
Manuel, an eventual first round pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2013, took the advice in stride -- ultimately switching his major.
Now retired from the NFL after spending five years on three different teams, he has begun his post-football life as an analyst for the newly launched ACC Network -- a position he still credits Buckley for.
"I owe that to T-Buck," he said. "I'll never forget that conversation."
Back again in Mississippi
With 41 years of collegiate coaching between them, Buckley and Stoops seemingly face a past co-worker each week.
But contrary to the cliched narrative of not wanting to play former assistants or employers, the pair are antsy to see one another again.
"There's a lot of crossover and I've always been of the mindset that if I was ever to burn one bridge that'd be one too many -- that's not how I go about my business," Stoops said. "I have good relationships with a lot of people and look forward to seeing T-Buck."
Buckley says he's not in as frequent contact with Stoops since their days at Florida State. Annual contests against Kentucky have helped maintain the connection.
Following last year's 28-7 Kentucky win, the two traded words for a few minutes -- briefly catching up and trading quick anecdotes.
Saturday the former Florida State tandem will again stand on opposite sidelines. Stoops will look to bring his Kentucky team back from the demoralizing depths of a near-upset of No. 9 Florida last week.
In Buckley's case, he'll be hoping his cornerbacks can contain Wildcats receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. from stretching the Kentucky offense down field.
As for the golf, Stoops says the invite remains open should Buckley want the challenge.
"I was going to make sure (I) mentioned that he's still ducking me on the golf course," he said through a hearty laugh. "He doesn't want a piece of me."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.