NEWPORT, R.I. -- Two years ago here, Brian Kelly kicked off his first Big East media day by refusing to talk to a free-lance reporter working for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The Cincinnati coach felt it was disrespectful for the hometown daily not to send a staffer to cover the team. Never mind that the program had finished a combined eight games below .500 in the previous nine seasons. Or that it had just finished 90th nationally in attendance, near the bottom in the Big East, averaging slightly more than 20,000 fans per game.
It certainly wasn't the fault of the Enquirer that the Bearcats had been, to put it mildly, mediocre. Coaches typically do whatever they want, but this was borderline unprofessional. You stick to running the team, coach. We'll choose how to cover it.
"What I was saying to the entire city of Cincinnati is, 'You have to be invested. Not me, not just the papers,'" Kelly said. "That was a way for us to send that message out. ... It wasn't to attack [the reporter]. It woke everybody to say, 'He's right. We do have to get up off our hands.'"
We can debate about using the media to send a rah-rah message but the coach does know how to mold public opinion. The son of an alderman and political science major once worked on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. Public and media opinion certainly has been molded.
Kelly is now a known commodity. He has won 22 games in two-plus seasons -- two of those bowl games -- a Big East title and secured an Orange Bowl berth.
Coverage has changed ("It's unbelievable the buzz around the city," quarterback Tony Pike said), attendance certainly rose and college football is looking at Cincinnati in a whole new way.
"You still have to win," Kelly said. "It would have meant nothing if we didn't win."
Call it a poor man's Miami, circa 1983. It just took the right man to mine the talent for a faceless program that just seemed to be there for so many years. Kelly now says Ohio State could come in and fill an entire recruiting class with area players and there would still be enough left over for Cincinnati to win the Big East.
This season he loses 10 defensive starters, but in a wide-open conference race there is sufficient talent on the offensive side to defend last year's title.
In that way, the coach is a clear-thinking realist. He has anchored himself to the city and program. Star receiver Marty Gilyard said there was a "three-foot wall" between the coach and the team when Kelly took the job in December 2006. Mark Dantonio had professed his loyalty, only to leave the Bearcats for Michigan State at the end that season.
So if the players felt jilted, you can understand why Kelly is hung up on loyalty. For a short while late last year he was at the top of Tennessee's wish list. Washington showed interest. In June, though, Kelly signed a one-year contract extension through 2013 and is looking to benefit from new facilities in Cincinnati's urban-locked campus.
|Preseason All-Big East|
|QB||Matt Grothe||Sr.||South Florida|
|RB||Noel Devine||Jr.||West Virginia|
|OL||Selvish Capers||Sr.||West Virginia|
|DL||George Selvie||Sr.||South Florida|
|DL||Scooter Berry||Jr.||West Virginia|
The question is can the school hang on to what might be the nation's hottest coach? Cincinnati would seem to be another steppingstone. Since 2002, Kelly has won a pair of Division II titles (at Grand Valley State), a MAC championship (at Central Michigan) and a Big East title.
"It's a passion for the game I've never seen before," said Pike, a redshirt senior who has benefitted greatly from Kelly's resolve. "He knows everything to know about football."
The coach does qualify that success. It has been easier drawing players to a Cincinnati in the Big East than to a Cincinnati in Conference USA. The school was asked to join the Big East in 2005 in a rush after the ACC raided the conference during its expansion.
"Now, this can be a job to stay in as an assistant coach," Kelly said. "You can put on your résumé, 'Hey, I can recruit Cincinnati.' [Former coach Rick Minter] couldn't sell the fans to a matchup with a Conference USA opponent. That just didn't sell."
Cincinnati got to the Orange Bowl without beating a team that finished in the Top 25 of the coaches poll. The conference has been criticized for having an automatic BCS berth while others (ahem, Mountain West) don't. But that's an argument for another time.
How hard can it be at Cincinnati? Kelly says his biggest accomplishment might be winning that MAC title in 2006.
"Everybody has the same shortcomings," he said of the MAC. "Everybody has the same challenges. Everybody has the same stadium. Nobody has more money. It's truly about getting your players. ... The MAC has the best coaches in the country because they've got to get their average players to play above their means."
Pike could have been considered one of those average players. He didn't take over until Week 3 last season, after starter Dustin Grutza broke his leg at Oklahoma. Pike himself broke his left (non-throwing) arm. Eventually, he played again with six screws and a plate holding it together.
That should have been enough for Pike to prove his manhood. Not to Kelly, who seemed to question his quarterback's toughness.
"I didn't know [if] he loved the game," Kelly said. "I didn't know at what level he was willing to sacrifice to be quarterback in a BCS bowl game."
After a four-interception game by Pike in the Orange Bowl, Kelly added, "Now we're at that next stage of development ... when your neck is sore, when you don't feel good or you're ribs are sore, nobody is 100 percent. You've got to go."
Asked if his coach is calling him out, Pike understands. He didn't get one rep in at this point last year in the first week of camp. His last start had come in 2003 in high school.
"It was more of a message to me to wake up," Pike said.
The quarterback got the reps, got the job, then got the Bearcats to the Orange Bowl. The next step is to win one of those BCS games.
"It's not all about the Bengals and Reds [anymore] ..." said Pike, who grew up in Cincinnati. "The city is coming to us."
Is the nation next?
"Absolutely," he said. "The University of Cincinnati can compete on that national level and be among the best in the country."
Offensive Player of the Year
Matt Grothe, QB, South Florida: Mike Canales has been promoted from receivers coach to offensive coordinator. Hopefully, that will help Grothe cut down on his interceptions (42 in 39 career games vs. 47 touchdown passes). Still, Grothe is the guts of the program. His legs have carried him to more than 2,000 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. His career might be defined by games against Florida State and Miami.
Defensive Player of the Year
George Selvie, DE, South Florida: While Selvie's numbers decreased last season (5.5 sacks), it was an indication of how teams have to game plan around him. He faced constant double teams but was a threat just because of his ability to get off the line. There might not be a quicker speed end. Look for a huge senior season with the NFL Draft staring him in the face.
Who will win the Big East?
Total Votes: 5,911
Predicted order of finish
1. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights will go to their first BCS game mostly because they have the league's most favorable schedule. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, South Florida and West Virginia have to come up the Jersey Turnpike. Even though Greg Schiano loses his quarterback (Mike Teel) and two best receivers (Kenny Britt, Tiquan Underwood), there is enough talent to fill in. All five starters are back on the offensive line, including 325-pound NFL prospect Anthony Davis at left tackle. Davis was recently demoted to second string but still has All-America potential. The Knights get Howard, Florida International and Texas Southern at home before playing their second Big East game. The momentum created by a seven-game winning streak to end '08 will carry over with 16 returning starters. Must-see game: Cincinnati on Labor Day afternoon. Neither coach wants to do it but the Big East wanted its own version of Miami-Florida State to kick off the season. The loser is immediately at a disadvantage in the conference race.
2. South Florida: The offense gets more of a pure spread with the promotion of Canales. Matt Grothe might have to use those magic legs more than ever with only one returning starter on the offensive line. George Selvie can be a freak at times off the edge. He slipped back in '08 after 14.5 sacks in 2007. The Bulls must learn to finish. Must-see game: Sept. 26 at Florida State. The Bulls started 6-0 in '07 and 5-0 in '08. If they are going to get off to a similar start this season they must win in Tallahassee.
3. Pittsburgh: Dave Wannstedt might have the most talented team in the league but he will have to prove it. The loss of tailback LeSean McCoy to the NFL was a killer. Early enrollee Dion Lewis has a shot at the job. If senior Bill Stull doesn't hold onto the quarterback job (nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions), there's always junior Pat Bostick. The defense will be stout again with Mick Williams at defensive tackle. Linebacker Adam Gunn returns for a sixth year of eligibility after breaking his neck in the '08 season opener. End Greg Romeus is the leading returning sacker in the Big East (7.5). Wanny has stockpiled talent with three consecutive top 25 recruiting classes. Coming off a nine-win season, he needs to take the next step and win a bowl game in his fifth year at Pittsburgh. Must-see games: Sept. 26 at N.C. State. Two teams favored to win their leagues (or in the Pack's case, their division). This is the kind of game where Pittsburgh usually comes up short. Win this one and the Panthers might start 6-0.
4. Cincinnati: Brian Kelly, the ultimate coaching-ladder climber (three jobs since 2003), recently signed an extension through 2013. If Kelly sticks around long enough, he could make Cincinnati into a watered-down version of Miami in the old Big East, an urban school waiting to bust out. Kelly produced 11 wins, a conference title and an Orange Bowl berth last season. The question is how to replace 10 defensive starters. Must-see game: Dec. 5 at Pittsburgh. A chance for the Bearcats to sneak into the Orange Bowl on the last day of the season?
5. West Virginia: Sorry, West Virginians. You lose Pat White and your prospects don't improve. White was one of the Big East's best-ever players and perhaps the best player in West Virginia history. The slippery quarterback cannot be fully replaced, but Jarrett Brown will give it a shot. The senior gets his chance to start in his final season. The 6-foot-4 Brown is more of a physical dual-threat quarterback. What Brown can't do, tailback Noel Devine can. After rushing for almost 2,000 yards in his first two seasons, this could be Devine's breakout year. A Heisman run wouldn't be a surprise. The Mountaineers will have to win at least nine again to make it happen. Must-see game: Sept. 19 at Auburn. The remnants of Rich Rodriguez's spread option vs. Gus Malzahn's new spread offense at Auburn.
|2009 Conference Previews|
6. Connecticut: South Florida is in its 13th year of existence, but UConn has been in I-A only seven years. The country had to pay attention last season. Donald Brown led the country in rushing, the Huskies blew out conference champ Cincinnati and they won eight games. Coach Randy Edsall's name continued to pop up for higher-profile jobs. Edsall stayed. However, Brown is gone to the NFL so don't expect another 2,000-yard season. Notre Dame transfer Zach Frazer will take over at quarterback throwing to 5-9 Kashif Moore, the team's leading receiver. Must-see game: Sept. 19 at Baylor. Good Lord, what is UConn doing playing North Carolina and Baylor back-to-back in the non-con?
7. Louisville: This has to be a make-or-break season for Steve Kragthorpe. He is 11-13 in two years. Last season crashed with a five-game losing streak. The once powerful offense is now struggling. Tailback Victor Anderson rushed for 1,000 yards but only 207 of those came in the final four games. Louisville desperately needs something good to happen. The schedule is not kind. In consecutive weeks the Cardinals play at Kentucky, at Utah, Pittsburgh, Southern Miss, at UConn and at Cincinnati. Must-see game: Sept. 27 vs. Rutgers. The Cardinals could be playing for bowl eligibility, Kragthorpe's job or both.
8. Syracuse: If Doug Marrone's work ethic could be transformed into wins, the Orange would be back in a major bowl. 'Cuse Nation is excited about one of their own taking over. Still, Marrone is a rookie head coach inheriting a train wreck. The new coach has embraced Syracuse traditions. Redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib was named starter in spring practice but there is the small matter of a former Duke guard in the mix. This was a good place for Greg Paulus to land.
A one-year cameo could get the 'Cuse back on track. Before missing last season for academic reasons, Mike Williams caught 60 passes in '07 and was second-team All-Big East. The Orange finished last in the conference in total defense. Must-see game: Sept. 5 vs. Minnesota. Marrone has a chance to make a splash, hosting a Big Ten middle of the packer in his first game.