In the autumn of 1996, near the end of four mostly delightful years covering the Memphis Tigers basketball and SEC football for the Commercial Appeal newspaper, it was time, if possible, to move closer to my hometown because of a serious illness in the family. An uncommon bit of serendipity presented two opportunities that would place me exactly 4.5 hours from Pittsburgh. One was at the Cincinnati Post. The other was at the Cincinnati Enquirer.
I preferred the Enquirer opportunity because it was apparent that newspaper had a longer lifespan ahead, but it made sense to use the leverage this circumstance presented. The Enquirer was offering the chance to cover college basketball generally and the Cincinnati Bearcats in particular. After 14 years of working on both major sports, of being on the job every weekend from September to April, and having no “home games” because the schools I covered generally required a 3-hour drive, I wanted at least some of that back. So I asked not to cover football. It was agreed.
And then after I’d worked at the Enquirer for three years, my boss was in a jam and needed someone to cover the UC football team. This was the new deal: I only had to cover home games and the weekly coach’s news conference. That was it. That’s how little Cincinnati Bearcats football mattered as recently as 1999. The biggest paper in the city could half-ignore them and expect no consequence from the community.
Yes, this is the same Bearcats program that now draws capacity crowds on the regular, recently was invited to join the Big 12 Conference, played Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, is ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and is favored on the road against No. 9 Notre Dame in a Saturday afternoon game under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus.
It was Brian Kelly who made this occasion possible.
Make no mistake, though: It was Luke Fickell who made it happen.
Now the coach at Notre Dame, Kelly arrived in Cincinnati in December 2006 and almost immediately began forcing the campus and the city to care. Kelly now chuckles about there being no fans between the 30-yard-lines at Nippert Stadium because those belonged to basketball season-ticket holders forced to buy football tickets as a condition of getting inside the Shoemaker Center to watch hoops. “It was a basketball school then,” he told Sporting News.
Kelly was left behind some magnificent players by previous coach Mark Dantonio, including defensive end Connor Barwin, wideout Mardy Gilyard and quarterback Tony Pike, but Dantonio was far more effective at coaching a football team than creating a fan base. Kelly excelled at both.
In his second season, 2008, after the Bearcats earned a 28-21 victory at home over Pitt that all but assured the program’s first Big East championship, I wrote that Kelly would be foolish to leave Cincinnati for a vexing Tennessee program because he’d built something extraordinary with his own personality and ingenuity. He stayed. A year later, after the Bearcats clinched another Big East title by outgunning Pitt in a 45-44 classic at Heinz Field that remains one of the great college football games of this century, the allure of Notre Dame was too powerful for him to resist.
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His departure was not handled gracefully. News he had accepted the ND job leaked on the night of the Bearcats team banquet, before he’d informed players. He left behind an undefeated team to play in a major bowl game in order to commence recruiting for the Irish.
Even without that botched transition, it was not a seamless journey from there to here. Butch Jones proved an able caretaker of the program, twice tying for Big East championships, but Tommy Tuberville’s four years in Cincinnati were a naked money grab that nearly sunk the program.
If not for Fickell’s arrival and aggressive, confident and perceptive recruiting, the Bearcats likely would be marooned with Tulane and Tulsa in the American Athletic Conference for the next several years.
Instead, they will travel to Notre Dame with an impressive roster featuring such NFL prospects as cornerback Sauce Gardner and edge rusher Myjai Sanders. And with a legitimate chance to win.
They have won 23 of their last 27 games and are 5-2 over the past four seasons against Power 5 opponents. If not for Fickell’s remarkable 11-2 turnaround in his second season, 2018, UC never would have been on Notre Dame’s radar. The game was announced in April 2019. The Bearcats have been 240 miles down the road all this time, and ND has not scheduled Cincinnati since 1900. Now, if the Irish can pull the upset, they’ll have themselves a “quality win.
This is true even though there have been many interesting connections between the programs over the years. Rick Minter, the coach I “covered” at UC, had been Irish defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz. Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman left Fickell’s staff to work for Kelly just this year. ND has recruited scores of southwest Ohio residents over the years, including one from the first family of Cincinnati sports, linebacker Mike Larkin in the 1980s, as well as tight end Kyle Rudolph in 2008 and current left guard Zeke Correll.
The Bearcats team I covered in 1999 became much more interesting in retrospect than it was at the time. Minter had an offensive coordinator named Jimbo Fisher. The defensive backs coach was someone named Mike Tomlin. They pulled an unlikely upset in an unlikely home game against No. 9 Wisconsin – that was the only game I covered that drew any sort of crowd, and most of them were Badgers fans – but finished just 3-8.
In that period, the NCAA was attempting to enforce a standard for Division I-A membership (what is now called FBS) that mandated teams to attract more than 15,000 fans a game on average. So that’s what more or less what Cincinnati claimed, and in their defense, they were selling at least that many tickets. But Nippert Stadium rarely was more than 25 percent filled. A refurbished Nippert now provides one of the most intriguing venues in college football, which Big 12 members soon will discover.
Saturday, the team that calls that place home will travel to the most famous stadium in the sport Fickell’s Bearcats will tilt at their biggest windmill yet. They’ll not reach the College Football Playoff without a victory, and quite likely not with one, but what an amazing moment that would be for a program that didn’t even matter on its own campus two decades ago. In that event, Kelly would have only himself to blame.
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