To understand the difficulty of the first thing Luke Fickell had to get done when he took over UC's football program, you have to remember what it was like to be a Bearcats fan last year.
Somewhere between misery and apathy is where the UC fan base was ten months ago. It was the least amount of fun I've ever had being a fan of a team, a heavy statement when you consider what I've had to endure as a sports fan.
The Bengals of the 90s. The Reds of the past four years. UC's immediate post-Huggins seasons. Nearly every Knicks campaign of the past 18 years. Last UC football season was the worst. Personally. Professionally. I dreaded watching the Bearcats, hated talking about them, and whenever their head coach opened his mouth, I vollyed between wanting to laugh at him and strike out in anger.
I wasn't alone. By last November, any remaining air in the Bearcat football balloon had been sucked out by a combination of losses that weren't competitive, players who'd quit, and cringeworthy press conferences. Nippert Stadium, for the final few home games, was a depressing, desolate place, and the buzz that had accompanied so many UC teams of the past dozen or so years had been totally extinguished.
It wasn't just the losing - that can be endured. The entire feel and vibe of the program was toxic, from fans who'd turned against the coach to those who simply moved onto something else. The UC fan base as last season trudged toward a conclusion was at its most dormant.
Within minutes of the start of his introductory press conference, Luke Fickell changed that.
It wasn't just what he said on that December Saturday, it was how he came across. The difference between Fickell's first session with the media and nearly every single similar event of the previous four years was striking. Tommy Tuberville press conferences felt equal-part storytime/equal-part cocktail hour. That can be a fun thing when there's winning involved. It's exhausting when the team is going 13 quarters without a touchdown.
Fickell was bullshit-free, all-business, and he seemed to grasp in those early moments that a big part of his new gig was going to be having to re-energize a worn-out fan base whose enthusiasm and interest had waned.
One full offseason cycle into his tenure, Fickell has Bearcats fans fired up for the new era, even if the expectations for the new season are tempered. It hasn't been one press conference, or one interview that's re-ignited UC's faithful, it's been the vibe created by the tone that Fickell has set. The last time a UC football team took the field, I was there, but only physically. Emotionally, I was tapped out, and mentally I was somewhere besides Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn't want to watch the Bearcats play another down for a long, long time.
Today, I'm counting the minutes until I can see what a Luke Fickell team looks like, and I know I'm not alone.
To understand the difficulty of the second thing Luke Fickell had to get done when he took over UC's football program, you have to remember his predecessor's final signing day press conference.
As Tommy Tuberville out a bow on his last class of sign-ees, he lamented the difficulty in recruiting players Power Five-caliber players and - even if it was unintentional - he outlined his inability or unwillingness to haul in players from this area. Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky recruits had been the backbone of some of UC's most successful teams in recent years, and yet Tuberville's class of 2016 had just one player from the area.
A look at UC's recent rosters would yield players from familiar high schools, just not enough of them, particularly when you measured how good their Cincinnati-area players actually were. And as the Bearcats went from the clear preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference in 2015 to a team that could barely find the end zone late in 2016, the current's staff's recruiting woes - locally, regionally, and nationally - were impossible to ignore.
Enter Fickell, and the re-establishment of once-fertile recruiting pipelines that had dried up. High school coaches who claimed that they'd never even met Tommy Tuberville were getting face time with his replacement. UC was in the conversation with kids that previous coaches didn't even try to get. Area players, each old enough to remember how good Cincinnati football can be, are staying here to play for the Bearcats.
I don't pretend to follow recruiting closely enough to break down for you exactly how good Fickell's recruiting has been, either with last year's class, this coming year's class, or beyond. I do know that the people I talk to who do follow it talk about how much the work being done by UC coaches is paying off, and a few high school coaches I've talked to paint a vastly different picture of how the current staff is trying to keep kids home as opposed the way their predecessors work.
On the recruiting trail, the Bearcat have momentum.
To understand the difficulty of the third thing Luke Fickell has to get done in his first season leading UC's football program, you have to remember how bad last year's team was.
They were a bad 4-8. Not that there's a such thing as a good 4-8, but when the average margin of defeat in the first seven losses is by nearly 21 points and the team is getting progressively worse, and it's obvious by the end of the season that some players have quite, and the coach continues to say stupid things, and fans have tuned out, that's a really, really bad 4-8.
When I think of last year's team - and really, the 2015 team too - I think not only of how often the Bearcats were blown out - but of how they looked while they were being beaten so soundly.
They looked poorly-prepared. They lacked physical stamina. They were pushed around.
With the players he inherits, Fickell has had his hands full.
The good news is that from the early days of offseason conditioning, the returning guys have bought in, almost as if they were begging to simply be coached. More than one player has talked about the stark differences between the team's attitude going into last season and the vibe as this one begins. And Fickell has gone out of his way to emphasize fitness, strength, and stamina.
The offense almost has to be better than it was last season, since, you know, it really can't get any worse and hopefully the safe choice to name Hayden Moore as the starting quarterback settles things at a position that was in chaos for most of last season. Devin Gray and Kahlil Lewis are nice targets for him to throw to, and Mike Boone does come back for what feels like his ninth year as a Bearcat. There's just not a lot of proven depth behind those players, and while the offensive line does bring back some experience, that unit was dreadful at creating running lanes last season, and in an offense that will be more up-tempo this season, they're going to collectively have to be more fit.
On defense, there's promising playmaking ability from Kevin Mouhon and Cortez Broughton on a defensive line that could be really good. But they're thin at linebacker and they lost their best two players in the secondary. A LOT was asked of last year's defense last season, and so maybe not being quite as burdened translates into better results.
This isn't a team that looks like it's capable of winning a lot of games. The most generous projections have the Cats topping out at seven wins, and I think six victories is a reasonable goal. The game that I think will swing things is the third one, in Oxford, against a Miami team that's come close to beating Cincinnati in recent years, will host the Battle for the Victory Bell, and accompanies a sense that if the Redhawks will ever beat the Bearcats, this has to be the year.
If UC goes there and wins, I have them at 6-6.
If not, you do the math.
I'm less concerned, though, about the win-loss record than I am about how the Bearcats play and look in achieving it. Can they be more competitive? Can they build better depth? Will they be more prepared, be in better shape, and avoid getting worn down late in games? Can they find away to be a little more efficient on offense and avoid going more than three whole games without a touchdown? Can enough things happen on the field in 2017 that offer hope for 2018 and beyond?
If the answers are yes, then Luke Fickell's first season will be as successful as his first offseason.