As we continue to push forward into the dog days of summer, football fans across the country are beginning to salivate in anticipation for the ensuing college football season. For fans of the University of Cincinnati in particular, the upcoming season is one that will bring with it much excitement due to all the changes that will be taking place next season.
With a new conference to place in, new rivals to get pumped for, updated facilities to experience, and even a new quarterback to question on Sunday. All of these improvements to the UC program will further emphasize the ever-increasing success of the Bearcats under head coach Mark Dantonio. However, with all the "new" that will be occurring this season there is one aspect of UC football that will stay the same, and has been the same for years: the football office. Day-in and day-out, these unheralded office heroes do the behind the scenes dirty work that rarely gets noticed but always plays an indirect role in helping to decide whether the football program will be successful from one game/season to the next.
One such unnoticed cog in the bearcat football machine is Maria Gruber, a relatively recent addition to the office. Gruber, who joined the Bearcats under former coach Rick Minter just over two years ago, serves as an administrative coordinator and works hand-in-hand with UC assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Mark Staten.
"My job primarily deals with the recruiting side of things," said Gruber. "I work primarily with coach Staten and coach Dantonio. I work with updating and maintaining the database, send out letters and mailings to interested players, set up unofficial visits for players and am involved in official visits as well, host recruits and their families, and show them around campus. I guess another part of my job is just providing overall support for the team and UC."
For Gruber, one of the greatest advantages of working in a situation such as the UC football office is that it seems like there is something new or exciting to do or accomplish with every day.
"What I love about this job is that it is different all the time. During the season, there are games and there is the excitement of watching the team play and occasionally going on the road with the team. Then there is recruiting. I get to meet new kids and their families and I have many responsibilities concerning making sure they get to Cincinnati okay. Then, when recruiting is over, it is time for spring football again. It is like starting fresh every fall."
However, Gruber very nearly missed out on the opportunity to pursue a career in the field of sport as the then fledgling field of sports marketing was not readily available to college students across the country as it is today.
"When I went to college my school didn't have a sports marketing program," said Gruber who earned her BA from Denison University in 2000 before starting her career in the sporting world with ISP sports and Targetcom after graduation. "I was lucky enough to get the chance to do some independent study work during my senior year. I think it really opened a lot of doors for me and made me the right connections to get involved in this line of work."
In addition, the job at UC, unlike here previous employment stops, offers a working environment that makes coming to the office each day an event, a fun place to be and work.
"I love this job because while we are all very professional, it definitely is not like working at a Fortune 500 company - it's just different," said Gruber. "It's more laidback; people want to have fun at the workplace as well. It's a good time. Monday after a loss the office may be a little solemn or down, but everyone still acts very professional and get to work. By the same note, after a big win or a quality situation for the team the office is electric, but we still need to get our work done to make sure that we have that same feeling after the upcoming weekend. "
The love for sport that the office displays on a daily basis is not something new for Gruber. This former collegiate athlete has always driven herself to be involved in athletic endeavors in one way or another and has put forth the same passion towards sports since she was a kid. Gruber, a tennis player at Denison, grew up in a sports crazed family that helped her develop the passion for athletics she now has.
"I was an athlete all my life, all the way through college, so I've always loved sports. I grew up with two brothers and a father who were always involved so they pushed me into sports and I just loved watching and playing with them so I followed."
Gruber, whose father is a UC alum, can recall attending Bearcat football and basketball games as a kid, the Cincinnati native, knew when it came time to look for a job that the old adage "there's no place like home" fit her situation perfectly: "When I decided to look for a job I decided to come back home to work. I grew up a Bearcats fan, so it really is like getting to come home and be a kid all over again."
That "kid in a candy shop" feeling Gruber feels while watching UC games has extended to all walks of life on UC, as the constant change and growth the university is undergoing has done nothing but made Cincinnati a great place to work.
"Things on campus are really exciting right now. We are moving into a new conference with new teams coming to town with new fans, it is going to be great. Plus, we are getting new facilities and new offices. It is really going to be a great time for us as a university, an athletic department and as a program. Having the entire athletic department in the same office right next to the football field will make things so much easier for all parties involved. It is just a fun atmosphere right now."
The new position she has within the athletic department at UC has also afforded Gruber a new perspective of college sports, and athletics in general, that most casual and extreme fans never get the chance to view.
"It is a whole different ballgame when you are actually involved in the game. On game day I have some work to do before the team breakfast and a few other responsibilities prior to kickoff, but by game time I pretty much get to sit back and be a fan. There are so many perks as well. You get season tickets, a field view and occasional road trips, it's every fans dream!"
Gruber, like so many other faculty and staff involved in Bearcat athletics, also see themselves as extending beyond the role of "fan". They are more than that. According to Gruber there is much more!
"Even though I am not coaching or playing I still feel connected to the team because I work with these guys and these kids every day. I think the entire office really feels like they are a part of the team."
However, this football program is more than just a team; they are a family in many ways. The relationships between staffers, coaches and players are ones built on personal bonds and care for one another.
"The entire office as a whole gets along really well. We find ourselves hanging out from time to time at team functions (like Big East Day) or other things the coaches put together. We are almost like a family."
However, like any family the possibility of divorce or moving apart is always a possibility. For Gruber, who came aboard during the Minter reign as head coach, had to deal with the loss of some of those relationships she forged during her brief stint at UC.
"I didn't really get a chance to work with Coach Minter and his staff for that long. I was hired while he was head coach, but I only worked for him for about six months before Coach Dantonio came into town, but it was fun under Coach Minter. I was sad to see him go, but the majority really did stay the same. It is pretty much only coaches or players that leave, we're all here for the long haul," said a chuckling Gruber about the job security of the rest of the football office.
"They've got to keep us around to teach the new coaching staff all the school and NCAA policies and regulations after all."
While Gruber can joke and be happy about the fact that many of the faces within the office stay the same, the ominous feeling that change or turnover amongst players and coaches is something that gets to her each time an associate or friend, moves on from their time on the campus at Clifton.
"It is upsetting to see anyone leave. For assistant coaches you hope you know they have to leave in search for opportunities to better themselves professionally, but it is still sad to see them leave. The entire office, coaches, players and staff, becomes very close so it is sad to lose anyone. Even the players' leaving affects you. You know the kids are graduating and moving on to pursue better things in life, but you get to know a lot of the kids and their stories, so it is sad to see them leave."
Gruber foresees a time that her involvement with the recruiting process will ultimately cause her even greater pain when she sees the young student-athletes move on to pursue jobs as professional either in or out of the sporting world.
"I've only been here two years, so a full class that I've helped recruit hasn't graduated yet, but being involved in the recruiting process, and learning some of the stories behind these kids, it really makes you feel connected to them. You see kids come in the office all the time and just chitchat for a minute or two, so you get to know them a little bit. It will be really sad to see a lot of them go, but it is part of the job and you know that after four or five years they are going to leave."
However, it is precisely the close familiar bond the office and program have for one another that allow them to function so well together. It is "little" things such as the comfort level with the entire working environment that gives everyone involved the chance to grow professionally.
"It is great to get know the coaches and staff at program events or get-togethers. However, being a woman it is nice to get the chance to meet their wives, their better halves," said Gruber jokingly. "I am around guys all day, which I am used to since I had two brothers growing up, but it is nice to get away from talking football and being around guys all day."
Even though Gruber brought up the topic jokingly, the prospect of being a woman in a male-dominated, chauvinistic environment such as a football office/program must be intimidating for a woman.
"It is a little strange being a woman in the football world, but it is okay," said Gruber. Nothing inappropriate ever is said and I always feel comfortable. However, just talking to them and overhearing conversations they have, it is quite clear that they aren't used to working with women.
However, things don't bother me. I've learned not to be offended by certain things. They're guys, you've got to learn to live with them!" said a laughing Gruber.
However, beyond the basic discomfort of being around an overwhelming mixture of machismo, bravado and testosterone, jobs within athletic departments and college programs have become increasingly open to the idea of women in the workplace.
"The field is really opening up to women with the growth of sports marketing programs in school and the growth of women's sports," said Gruber. "I mean, it is still a male-dominated field, but women can find a role. That is a great thing about this job. They really are trying to hire the best-qualified person. They aren't looking for a man or a woman; they want the person who is not only best qualified to fill the job, but the person who is going to mesh the best with the rest of the office. You can make a great career for yourself in this office."
With that being said, Gruber realizes that there will eventually be a capping point in her ability to rise throughout the administration because of her gender, and that has given her some reservations as to her future with the Bearcats.
"I know that I'll never be a coach. I'm a girl; I have to deal with that fact. However, there is a chance for me to move up through the ranks, but it will probably have to be outside football. I may have to look for a professional team or another program, or just in the athletic department as a whole. I see myself in the next five years in a place where I'm happy and they are happy with me. That is what I will call being successful."