Bearcat's BCS Bid Baffles Longtime Beat

The week prior to the Bearcats winning their first Big East title and earning their first BCS bowl bid, I sat down for an exclusive interview with longtime UC sports beatwriter Bill Koch of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Koch has seen his fair share of Cincinnati football and offered his opinion on how far this team truly has come.

The 2008-2009 college football season has been a monumental one for the University of Cincinnati football team. They were selected to finish fifth by coaches and sportswriters at the Big East media day prior to the start of the season. Despite winning ten games last year and finishing the season ranked number 17 in the final Associated Press rankings, everyone outside of the Queen City expected a sophomore slump in head coach Brian Kelly's second season. Now three weeks away from playing in their first FedEx Orange Bowl, the team has silenced the critics and surprised a conference and nation that hadn't given them much of a chance.

The team's Bowl Championship Series bid was secured on November 28, when a West Virginia University loss at the hands of Pittsburgh University clinched the Bearcats at least a share of the conference title and a trip to a BCS bowl.

But earning Cincinnati's first BCS berth in the school's history was just meeting another goal along the way for Kelly and his team.

"I don't think you go into this without expecting and wanting to win every game you play and win a championship," said Kelly to reporters just hours later. "We set a goal, and we've been able to hit that goal."

The next day the Bearcats accomplished another goal, after a 30-10 victory over Syracuse won Cincinnati its first outright conference title since winning the Missouri Valley Conference in 1964.

"We finished what we started. We started this year with the goal to become Big East Champions," said coach Kelly to the media during the post-game press conference.

This season has given Cincinnati fans something most thought they would never see, a Big East Conference Championship and trip to the 75th annual FedEx Orange Bowl. Fans that followed the team throughout the past couple of decades can truly appreciate where this team is now and how far they've come. The futility that surrounded Cincinnati's football program had left many believing success would never come.

Bill Koch has covered University of Cincinnati sports first for the Cincinnati Post and now the Cincinnati Enquirer since 1987. He's seen incredible Final Four runs by the school's basketball team, but never imagined he'd see the football team rise to such prominence.

"It was awful," said Koch of the program in '87 to this reporter the week leading up to the Syracuse game. "Their locker rooms were underneath, actually under the stadium, they had these locker rooms that were built underneath the seats over in the corner. And they didn't have one room big enough for everybody to sit in; they had to have to have two rooms. The upperclassmen were in one room and the rest of the guys were in another room. They had like light bulbs hanging down from the ceilings, they had old weight equipment stuck off in a corner, and I remember they had a stack of broken down chairs sitting in one corner. It was a totally different deal than what it is now. If you could see what this place was like then and what it is now you'd think you'd gone from a small college team to a Division-I team."

The team's January 1 date in Miami, Florida against Virginia Tech will without question be the school's biggest game in Cincinnati history. It's a game that 17 years ago Koch never thought UC would play in after he saw firsthand the worst loss in university history.

The start of the 1991 season saw the Bearcats travel to Happy Valley to open the season against Penn State University. The game would end with a final score of 81-0 in favor of the Nittany Lions. Recalling the game, Koch says PSU head coach Joe Paterno did everything he could to keep the score down.

"He put in the third string quarterback and he ran for an 80-yard touchdown. He tried everything he could to keep the score down," said Koch of the legendary Penn State coach. "I remember Tim Murphy was a UC coach at the time and after the game somebody said something about Paterno running up the score and he said, ‘He didn't run up the score, he did everything he could to keep it down. We were that bad.'"

The team was so bad that professors and faculty at times call for the abolishment of the football program.

"That was kind of an undercurrent that went on here for years," recalls Koch. "The level of resistance would raise and lower at different times depending on how bad they were doing and how much money that they perceived they were losing. There was always an undertone from the faculty, they thought, ‘Why are we wasting money on this? Nobody cares anyway.' But the administration hung in there and they saw a value to it to the university community and eventually I guess they saw at some point that it could be something that the students could rally around, which they do now but they never did before."

Students and fans packing into Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium is another thing Koch never thought he would see. Six of the top ten home game attendance records have been set in just the past two years, and this season finished with the highest average number of fans at a home game in the program's history. Koch attributes the fan base's growth to coach Kelly and the exciting style of play he brought with him.

"The fans didn't start coming until Brian Kelly got here. Even when (former head coach) Mark Dantonio was here and they were a decent team but they still didn't draw, and I think one reason was because they weren't very entertaining. They were a good defensive team but they had a very boring offense, a run-oriented offense, very predictable. To get people to come to these games you have to do three things," says Koch. "They had to win, they had to win against teams that people knew or cared about, not like the teams they played in Conference USA, and they had to do it in an entertaining fashion. And then the fourth thing that Brian Kelly did, he did the entertaining fashion thing, and then he added the fourth thing of selling the program to the community with his personality and it all came together and people took notice."

When the university joined the Big East in 2005, it gave Dantonio a bigger platform on which to recruit players to come to Cincinnati. The Big East was one of the six BCS conferences, but even that didn't get Koch and his peers to believe the team could be headed for success.

"Even when they went to the Big East, it was kind of a joke in the office, ‘Well they're in the Big East, you know if they win the Big East they go to the Orange Bowl.' And we'd all kind of go, ‘Yeah, right,' thinking, ‘well that's true, but they're not going to win the Big East,'" admits Koch.

Winning the Big East this year meant overcoming a trio of hurdles in West Virginia, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, three teams that Cincinnati had never beaten since joining the conference. Prior to this season the Bearcats were a combined 0-9 against the three schools since joining the Big East.

"I thought they might beat one or two, there's no way they're going to beat all three of those teams, and they did," said Koch. "I'm not going to sit here and say I knew they would do this, because I'm the most surprised person in the city."

Koch has no shame in admitting his early-season skepticism of the team, and now looks forward to covering the Bearcats from the press box in the famous Orange Bowl come January 1.

"I'll be the first to admit I never thought this would happen. I still can't believe it's going to happen," says the longtime beat writer, baffled by a team who's locker rooms were once too small to house the whole team and located underneath the stands now heading to its first BCS bowl.

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