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Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops celebrates after winning the Citrus Bowl. University of Kentucky football defeated Penn State University 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium on Tuesday, January 1, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

The estimations were confirmed: No. 22 Kentucky will take on No. 15 Iowa in the VRBO Citrus Bowl in Orlando. It will be the second time Kentucky has made an appearance in the Citrus Bowl in the last four years, having outlasted Penn State 27-24 in 2019.

“It’s an honor for us to be back in the Citrus Bowl,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “We had a fantastic experience last time we were there. It’s an honor to be back and play the Iowa Hawkeyes.”

The matchup this season means more than just a New Year’s Day bowl appearance for Stoops, with the coach having played for the Hawkeyes from 1986-1988. He also began his coaching career in Iowa, serving as a graduate assistant from 1990-1991.

“It’s hard to put into words what the Iowa program has meant to [my family],” Stoops said. “Whether it was playing or getting started coaching, it just meant a lot to us. I remember as a young child getting in the car on Friday night and driving 10 hours to arrive in the morning and watch my brothers play just to drive back another 10 hours [in the morning].”

While recruiting has taken up the bulk of his headspace lately, Stoops also acknowledged that the Iowa game will likely be an emotional one for him.

“I’m sure it’s going to be different for me,” He said. “My father has my game jersey folded in his casket. My black and gold [Iowa] jersey. It’s going to mean something to me [going against them]. Different from anybody else that we’ve played, that’s for sure.”

Despite being away from the program for well over a decade, Stoops had nothing but positive words to say about the coaching staff of the Hawkeyes.

“It’s going to be a great game, a great matchup,” Stoops said. “I have such respect for [Kirk] Ferentz and the entire Hawkeyes coaching staff. [Ferentz] is really just an impressive man and an impressive coach. I just saw him [as a player] and knew that man was going to be successful. I think everybody that came in contact with him had nothing but respect for him and knew he would go on to big things.”

Ferentz, the head coach of the Hawkeyes, was not the only one Stoops had kind words for, also positively reflecting on the late former coach of Iowa: Hayden Fry.

“I’ll tell you the kind of man Hayden Fry was,” Stoops recalled. “My father passed during the season, and [Fry and the staff] took a plane to come to his funeral. I believe we were preparing to go against Michigan the next week so it really showed the kind of people they were and are. I was a very average player, but it was an easy decision [where I wanted to play].”

Despite the positive memories associated with the Iowa program, Stoops reaffirmed his loyalty to Kentucky, also touching on his recent contract extension.

“Kentucky means everything to me,” He said. “It’s where I’ve been for the past nine years of my life. It’s had its ups and downs, but it’s been a really good marriage between myself and the University of Kentucky. I feel very proud to have been here for nine years and to continue to build the program.”

Stoops’ contract extension will see him be eligible to stay with the program through June of 2028. It also guaranteed a one-year extension for any season of 7-9 wins and two-year extension for 10 or more win seasons.

The VRBO Citrus Bowl will kickoff from Orlando, Florida on New Years Day. The start time is currently set for 1 p.m. E.T. and can be watched live on ABC.