(Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty)
I wrote this on November 6th, before UC played games against Houston and ECU. The Bearcats won both of those games, so the point of the piece remains. Read it in its entirety in The Athletic....
By my count, there are 67 Football Bowl Subdivision programs led by head coaches who have been at their respective schools for less than four seasons. That means the University of Cincinnati, an institution rarely thought of as a beacon of football coaching stability, has had its head coach in place longer than more than half of the game’s FBS membership.
Neither Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly nor Butch Jones — three coaches who used UC as a jumping-off point to more lucrative gigs elsewhere — stuck around for a fourth season in Clifton. Their otherwise successful tenures were marked with nonstop speculation about bolting Cincinnati for somewhere higher-profile and higher-paying.
It’s well-documented that current head coach Luke Fickell has been wooed heavily as well, but so far he’s stayed loyal to the Bearcats and UC is benefitting greatly.
Dantonio’s ascension to Michigan State coaching candidate seemed sudden, but his departure marked a coaching saga that left bruised feelings and overshadowed the program’s late-2006 run to its first bowl appearance as a Big East member.
Kelly seemed destined to eventually become Notre Dame’s head coach well before he was ever contacted by officials in South Bend. His final season in Cincinnati remains the gold standard for Bearcats football, but the undefeated regular season of 2009 had to share a stage with the unending conversations about how and why he would be leaving.
Jones spent his final year at UC leading his team to a share of a Big East title for a second consecutive season. But he never really connected with Bearcats fans, probably because that would have required him to stop shopping himself to other schools long enough to do so.
None of the coaches left the program in shambles. Dantonio’s recruiting work set the stage for Kelly to have three spectacular seasons, and even if the first season post-BK saw a dramatic dip in the talent Jones had to work with, Kelly’s relentless salesmanship and magnetic personality combined with two BCS bowl teams to lift UC football to its highest-profile position ever. And upon bolting for Tennessee, Jones left the cupboard full enough for Tommy Tuberville to win 18 games over his first two seasons before he morphed into a caricature of a disinterested and washed-up football coach.
Fickell’s fourth UC team is trending toward transcendent. The Bearcats are rightfully considered the favorites to win the American Athletic Conference and get the New Year’s Six Bowl spot that goes to the highest-ranked non-Power 5 team in the final College Football Playoff standings. There is fair skepticism over a Group of 5 team being invited to the CFP, but even if the Bearcats still have a ton of heavy lifting to do over the next month and a half, it isn’t unreasonable to talk about the case for an 11-0 UC team.
The national title conversation is way, way premature. But that we’re even starting to have it during a season in which Cincinnati has entered the top six of both major polls is not only an illustration of how Fickell and his staff have repaired UC’s football brand, it’s also part of the reason why I’d argue that it’s more fun to be a Bearcats fan right now than at any point in its recent or not-so-recent past.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.