Dec. 9, 2008
(9:57 a.m.): The live interview in front of a national TV audience and a few hundred fans at Fifth Third Arena had been completed and so had a long, long trip to Hawaii and back. There was scant time for sleep, and in about three weeks from that moment, the UC football team – for the first time in history – was going to play in a BCS bowl game.
Coach Brian Kelly, the face of this program since he stepped up to the microphone during his initial news conference at the Kingsgate Marriott after he had been hired, is one of the most wanted men in the country. His name has been linked to open jobs from the East to the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. He’s become a nationally-known name, and scores of students can, at a moment’s notice, break into a Bri-an Kel-ly chant.
Yes, at the moment for Kelly and his team, life is good. So good that Kelly, as he’s done all year, makes light of the moment. Seated in the Fifth Third’s media room, where basketball coach Mick Cronin usually holds court after his Bearcats play, Kelly turned into a jokester after it was announced the Bearcats were going to the Orange Bowl.
“I thought our post play was lousy,” he said. “If we can ever get five guys shooting the ball, we might win a game or two. Sound familiar?”
The jokes, yes, they sound familiar. And Kelly – and the fans that follow his team – has a good reason to laugh and feel giddy.
During a season in which the Bearcats have blown a double-digit lead in less than 90 seconds, were outplayed and seemingly out of the game with 12 minutes to play at Hawaii, got a tad lucky to beat Akron on the road and have played five quarterbacks this season, they’ve made history.
Only Bearcats team to win 11 games.
Only Bearcats team to win at least 10 contests in back-to-back seasons.
Only Bearcats team to enthrall this city.
So, Kelly jokes and he makes you laugh (Kelly, for the record, is funny when he’s making a quick off-the-cuff remark to a question or comment. He can fall flat at times when he already has something planned). But aside from that, Kelly and his team makes you watch and then want to watch some more.
One of the first football games I covered when I moved to Cincinnati and began working for the Post was the 38-0 Pat White-washing of UC by West Virginia on that frigid Wednesday night four years ago. The thought I had to myself as I watched the end of that game on the beaten Bearcats sideline: this is isn’t real college football. I don’t know what this is, but it’s not real college football.
Four years later, UC is playing for a top-10 ranking and the respect of the rest of the country. It’s playing real college football at least.
This team is unusual. I don’t know if it’s extraordinary coaching or an inordinate amount of good luck or something else I can’t determine, but this type of team doesn’t merge together very often. It’s a team that clearly enjoys playing the game and enjoys playing that game with each other and for these coaches. It, for whatever reason, is something special.
“What I’ve done in 18 years as a head coach is I’ve had good teams and fun teams and teams that win games,” Kelly said. “The special teams are the ones that have that special fight in them, regardless of the situation they’re going to have. I’ve had a couple teams like that. This one is special. They have that special fight that they’re going to keep playing.”
Receiver Mardy Gilyard thinks of it like this: a couple hours before every game, a number of players and team officials gather around the 50-yard line in a circle, hold hands and pray. Gilyard can look to his left and look to his right and look straight ahead, and he sees one thing.
“I look in everyone’s eyes, and I can honestly say that in every game, I can see the hunger in their eyes, like they’re ready to go to war,” Gilyard said. “Not just to go out and battle for the sake of having a good battle, but going out and battling to win. That separates us from a lot of teams.”