The inherent nature of a campaign — be it a football or political one — is that it is prone to drastic swings of momentum.
Few know this better than Cincinnati Coach Brian Kelly, who improbably has the Bearcats on the cusp of the team’s first berth in a Bowl Championship Series game.
Before he started a career in football, Kelly, 46, dabbled in politics in the early 1980s. He worked on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign, organizing grassroots efforts in Boston. Kelly has fond memories of driving Hart around Boston in his 1980 Ford Escort, which he likes to joke had just three cylinders.
As much as he can, Kelly still keeps up with politics. And he is hoping that his Bearcats (8-2), who were picked fifth in the Big East in the preseason, can steal a few plays from Barack Obama’s campaign playbook.
“I thought it was textbook,” he said of Obama’s campaign. “One of the things I thought was impressive was that they learned from the Gore situation and used their money down the stretch like never before. They finished strong.”
A strong finishing kick for the Bearcats would mean victories against Pittsburgh and Syracuse to close the Big East season. Those games will be played at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, and two victories would put the Bearcats in the rarefied air of one of the elite-level bowl games.
It would mean yet another championship for Kelly, who won a MAC title as the coach at Central Michigan and back-to-back Division II national titles at Grand Valley State.
But Kelly said that in the 18 years he has been a head coach he has never had to use more creativity than this season. An onslaught of injuries has forced the Bearcats to use five quarterbacks.
“You have to be able to sell the other 10 guys that this quarterback is going to get the job done for you,” he said. “Being the parent of an 11-, 8- and 7-year-old, I’ve been able to con a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds this year.”
Somehow, the Bearcats have managed to lead the Big East in passing offense and passing efficiency, a testament to the reputation that Kelly has forged as a creative offensive mastermind. According to Cincinnati officials, only one other team, Eastern Michigan, has used five quarterbacks this season. It is 2-8.
Starting the season, Cincinnati’s Tony Pike was considered the Bearcats’ third option at quarterback. If last year’s starter, Ben Mauk, had been granted a sixth year of eligibility, Pike would have been fourth string. Now Kelly is calling Pike the league’s best quarterback.
Pike has thrown for 16 touchdowns, with just 5 interceptions, and has been perhaps most impressive with his improvisational ability. Pike is 6 feet 6 inches, and Kelly described him as a “backburner” recruit. He came from a local high school and flew under the radar because he was so skinny. He has filled out to 225 pounds and has proved to be a top-flight Big East quarterback.
“Now when the N.F.L. scouts come by our practices to look at other players, they’re asking about the 6-foot-6 quarterback,” Kelly said. “He’s starting to look like an N.F.L. prospect.”
But Kelly said that the unsung hero of the program has been Dustin Grutza, who came in during the fourth quarter against Louisville and led the Bearcats on a 72-yard touchdown drive that helped them earn a 28-20 victory. (Pike had left the game with a bruised sternum, Kelly said, and is expected to start against Pittsburgh on Saturday.)
Grutza broke his leg in Cincinnati’s loss at Oklahoma on Sept. 6 and has remained an integral part of the team throughout his rehabilitation.
“He’s really our inspiration,” Kelly said. “He comes in against Louisville and drives us 72 yards with four screws in his leg. He’s still only about 70 percent. Every team has that inspirational story, he’s that guy for us.”
But the real inspirational leader may be Kelly. John Widecan, an assistant athletic director for football operations who has worked with Cincinnati football for 20 years, said Kelly’s abilities as a leader have shone this season.
Widecan said the team believed in Kelly’s “next man in” philosophy, meaning that the team has as much faith in the backups as the starters.
“Coach Kelly is positive, and he gets us all to believe,” Widecan said.
That belief manifested with a raucous celebration at Louisville on Saturday night, as the Bearcats hosted a keg party of sorts. The two longtime rivals play for a trophy called the Keg of Nails, which Cincinnati had not won in so long — since 2002 — that Kelly and his players laughed at the out-of-date Bearcat logo on it.
That victory has helped Kelly become into one of the front-runners to replace Phillip Fulmer for the soon-to-be-vacant job at Tennessee.
Kelly knows that distractions can upend a campaign — be it football or political. And he said that he and his team are locked in on their finishing kick.
“When you’re winning and having success, your name is going to be thrown around,” he said. “I’m focused totally on our football team. We want to win a Big East championship.”
A strong finish would mean that Kelly and the Bearcats would have completed a historic campaign of their own.