This was originally published in The Athletic.
My favorite moment of the 2009 UC Bearcats football season didn’t occur at Heinz Field. It wasn’t when Tony Pike connected with Armon Binns for the most iconic moment in the school’s gridiron history, nor was it when Mardy Gilyard started a comeback against Pitt that echoes a decade later with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
My most cherished memory of that season isn’t of something that went down on any field or in any stadium. In fact, it only tangentially involves the 2009 Big East champs.
It instead took place in my living room, where after a warp-speed drive home from western Pennsylvania, I scrambled to find my remote and paced the floor during the closing minutes of the Big 12 Championship game wondering if the most implausible scenario of all the implausible scenarios was about to unfold.
The single best moment of the 2009 UC football season occurred when I, even if just for a few fleeting minutes, allowed myself to imagine the Bearcats playing for a national championship.
That they didn’t is inconsequential. Ten years after Texas beat Nebraska to clinch a spot in the BCS Championship game, the result of that tilt is little more than a footnote. It’s as pointless now as it was then to debate how favorably the BCS formula would’ve viewed a 12-0 team from the Big East versus whichever schools were in the hunt.
The point is that the thought was there. For just a few hours, or maybe even a couple of minutes, the Bearcats were in the title game conversation, a concept that not long before was laughable because no one dared even entertain it. The University of Cincinnati? A school where some faculty once tried to fold the football program? Where the athletic director once had to leverage his basketball program in order to end a run of 47 straight seasons without a bowl game? A place that once force-fed football season tickets to prospective basketball customers?
The ’09 Bearcats are being celebrated at UC this weekend, and deservedly and appropriately so. For my money, that team could be honored annually and it would never get old.
But as much as that one season stands out among every other campaign in UC’s long football history, I tend to view 2009 less in a vacuum and more as a culmination of a magical three-year stretch. The program during that period obtained unprecedented relevance, gathered new fans by the thousands, and most importantly, redefined what was possible for a program that for most of its history seemed limited by what it could accomplish.
Therein lies Brian Kelly’s legacy at the University of Cincinnati.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.
(Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)