Ask any West Virginia fan if they know how fans of the Cincinnati Bearcats feel after tonight's game, and the answer is, YES! See while the Mountaineers are now the Beast of the East, it was only a few short years ago (2001) West Virginia University Football was at the same building stage in its development.
The 2001 season was the first for Coach Rich Rodriguez after taking over for coaching legend Don Nehlen. Coach Nehlen's last team was a lot like the Bearcats in Coach Dantonio's first year. The 2000 version of the Mountaineers were a senior laden team that went 6-5 during the regular season and earn a bowl berth and victory over Mississippi in the Music City Bowl. Just like the Bearcats did in 2004.
In Coach Rodriguez's first season many underclassmen played and the team went 3-8 with wins over programs like Ohio, Kent State and Rutgers. But while the team earned only three victories on the season, it was the defeats that remind me of how things are going at UC. West Virginia would drop games to top opponents like Virginia Tech 35-0 (at home) Miami 45-3 and Boston College 34-10. While staying close to teams like Pitt and Syracuse.
Now having seen first hand the growth of the Mountaineers program under Coach Rodriguez, I see alot of things happening at UC under Coach Dantonio that remind me of 2001. The number of young players in key roles that fight hard no matter what the score is and on every play reminds me of the way Coach Rodriguez pushed his team to perform.
The young Bearcats are doing the same thing. Coach Dantonio and his staff push these young men to play every play and not to give up. This style of play will continue over the years and as the talent level raises to that of West Virginia and Louisville look out. Instead of watching the Bearcats go down in defeat, fans will have a chance to watch a team win big games and earn bowl berths in the process.
But while West Virginia will have gone to 4 consecutive bowls at the end of this season, it was how the team played in 2001 that set the stage and pace of the growth of the program.
After the 2001 season, the West Virginia coaching staff worked its tail off to bring in a different type of athlete. One with the size and speed needed to play at the level of the Big East Conference. In that time they build a solid group of offensive linemen and brought in hard nosed athletes to man the defensive positions. This will be the task of the Bearcats staff this recruiting season. Bring in more players to go with those you brought in the previous two years. The more players like those in the Class of 2005, the better off this program will be.
So while Bearcat fans may feel a giant let down. Remember, this team fought hard until the very end of the game. They didn't give up and throw in the towel. Much like the Mountaineers did in 2001.
Will the Bearcats reach the status of WVU? In time I do believe this staff is capable of bringing in the type of players needed to win games over the leagues best talent. While it didn't happen this season, I agree with what Coach Rodriguez told me after the game. "Mark Dantonio is a very good coach and has this program on the right track." Coming from a coach who's been in the same shoes just a few years ago, you have to take notice and agree the future is bright.
For our premium members, you can listen to this special One-on-One video interview with Coach Dantonio done after the West Virginia game.