As the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, Mark Dantonio helped Ohio State win 25 games over the last two seasons as well as the national championship in 2002.
But Dantonio became the 36th head coach in Cincinnati history last Dec. 23 when he opted to leave his post and venture down I-71 to replace the fired Rick Minter.
At that point, UC's season opening game for 2004 was a distant thought. The only consideration for Dantonio, 48, was the chance to become a Division I head coach.
Now, of course, the reality of the situation is that Dantonio will make his college head coaching debut Saturday in a familiar place – the friendly confines of Ohio Stadium, where a capacity crowd in excess of 106,000 is expected to see the Bearcats and ninth-ranked Buckeyes do battle (12:10 p.m., ESPN-Plus).
"I'm sure it will be a great atmosphere up there -- it always is," Dantonio said.
The new UC coach talked about the opportunity ahead for his football team.
"It will be very emotional for us," Dantonio said. "We have a lot of players from Ohio, so it will be a big game for a lot of them. I know for myself it will be emotional. But I really wouldn't want it any other way. This is the first time I'm going to be a college head coach. I know there are going to be ups and downs, I realize that. But to go against the players I've been a part of their lives the last three years and that coaching staff which I have shared some tremendous highs and lows, I couldn't think of any better place to do it just because of the relationships I have there.
"To be on that sideline and see whether it's A.J. (Hawk) or Dustin (Fox) or Simon (Fraser) or Bobby (Carpenter) and I could go on and on, to see them compete at the level I know they are capable of playing, I know it will be exciting. It should be fun. It should be a good time for everybody – as long as we're playing well on our side. It should be something special. It will be something I will probably never forget."
Although Cincinnati boasts the fifth-oldest college football program in the country (UC begins its 118th year to OSU's 115), Dantonio is getting in on the ground floor as the program moves from Conference USA to the BCS-aligned Big East in 2005.
Dantonio talked about the process of putting together his first UC team during preseason camp. Some might wince at the prospect of having to play Ohio State (11-2 last year) and Miami (Ohio) (13-1) in the first two games. But Dantonio said he and his staff have rolled up their sleeves and just gone to work. He spent eight seasons working alongside Tressel (five years at YSU and three at OSU).
"It's probably very similar to Ohio State's camp, just because I was with Coach Tressel both at Youngstown and Ohio State," he said. "We're going to try and do things along those parameters. We had Camp Higher Ground outside Cincinnati. We're trying to get things right in terms of our offense, defense and special teams. We're just trying to get better every day as a football team.
"We have divided our season up into four different areas. One area was how we were going to come in and what shape we were going to come into camp with. We were able to do a good job in that capacity. Then, we had to look at how summer camp was going to come through. Then, we looked at our early season games with the Ohio State game, the Miami (Ohio) game and the Syracuse game, which are all big games. Then, we have our conference games. We are going to try to work through all of those parts and move forward."
Dantonio welcomes back 20 starters (10 offense, eight defense and two kicking positions) from last year's UC team that finished 5-7.
"I like our experience we have coming back," Dantonio said. "We have good leadership. We have guys who have competed before in big games and we have guys who expect to do well. From that standpoint, we're moving ahead."
Ohio State fans will be well familiar with UC senior quarterback Gino Guidugli (6-3, 225). He completed 26 of 52 passes for 324 yards and one touchdown against two interceptions as the Bearcats nearly knocked off Ohio State in 2002 at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati. OSU, then ranked No. 6 nationally, rallied to win that game 23-19 and continued down its national championship path.
Guidugli, a product of Fort Thomas (Ky.) Highlands, returns for his fourth season as the starter. He already holds the UC career passing records for attempts (1,214), completions (670), passing yards (8,820) and passing touchdowns (52), among many others.
"He has tremendous experience," Dantonio said. "What I like about Gino is his toughness and his decision making skills. He is a tough, competitive young man. He has physical toughness as well as mental toughness and he has done some good things here in terms of leadership. I think that's a real positive for us.
"When I talk about what kind of offense we're going to be, we're going to evolve. I really do think as a defensive coach, I always thought if a team was one-dimensional, you would be able to defend that team easily. We need to be multi-dimensional, and that means we have to be able to run the football. We need to find a way to do that. There are going to come times in every game when you will have to get some short-yardage situations and some tough yards to finish games. We just talk to our players about toughness.
"As far as passing, he does have an excellent arm. He is physical and big. He gets the ball to our receivers. He makes good decisions. We'll see how he goes there and how we evolve."
OSU fans should also be acquainted with UC's tailback, senior Richard Hall (5-11, 209). Hall was a prep standout at Cincinnati Wyoming High School in 1999, scoring 121 touchdowns in his prep career. He signed with OSU but was academically ineligible when he enrolled in 2000. He transferred to UC in 2001 and played sparingly in 2002. Last year, he was UC's leading rusher with 777 yards and eight touchdowns in the 10 games he played.
"Richard is a good back," Dantonio said. "I think he was a former All-Ohio pick as I recruited him when I was at Michigan State. He went to Ohio State. He has good ability. He's been healthy throughout camp here. We have some other good backs that are coming. We feel good about our running back situation right now. We have to evaluate that as we go, but I like his attitude. He's become a complete back – he'll run, he'll block and he'll catch."
There are returning starters at every position on offense except center, where senior Adam Shorter takes over.
More notables on offense include senior wide receiver George Murray (30 catches, 270 yards, two TDs), junior wide receiver Derick Ross (29 catches, 564 yards), senior left guard Kyle Takavitz (6-4, 311) and senior right tackle Clint Stickdorn (6-6, 327).
The final results did not show it, but Cincinnati's defense was not all that bad in 2003. Yes, the Bearcats allowed 29 or more points five times last year. But UC allowed a modest 333.0 yards per game defensively.
"Our defense, last year, was ranked, I believe, 21st in the nation in yards," Dantonio said. "But we do need to play better in the red zone, obviously. That transfers into points when you're not able to play well in the red zone. We have to continue to develop our attitude in terms of handling adversity.
"We do have some players back. We have a front seven that's almost totally intact. We have two guys who have started in the secondary as well, so we're not short on experience. We need to continue to work on our depth. But our defense expects to play well. Our attitude of our team is a very aggressive attitude. They want to be good."
The key names on defense include senior defensive ends Andre Frazier (6-5, 240) and Trent Cole (6-4, 260), senior middle linebacker Jamar Enzor (6-1, 238) and senior cornerback Daven Holly (5-11, 184).
Frazier is fourth on UC's all-time sacks list with 17-1/2. He was a second-team All-C-USA pick last year. Frazier, who is married with a son, is a former walk-on.
Cole, a Xenia, Ohio native, was a first-team All-C-USA pick last year, finishing second on the team in tackles (88) and first in tackles-for-loss (14).
Enzor was the team's leading tackler a year ago with 137. Holly tied the UC season record with six interceptions a year ago. He also scored touchdowns on an interception and a blocked kick.
All told, UC projects to start eight starters, one junior and two sophomores on defense.
In the kicking game, sophomore Chet Ervin handled both kicking and punting duties last year. But Ervin will apparently serve only as the punter this year after averaging 38.5 yards per boot. Ervin was 10 of 17 on field goals last year. Sophomore Kevin Lovell, a junior college transfer, will likely take over the kicking chores.
Junior Carl Jones, a backup cornerback, will handle the return duties.
Dantonio took a page out of the Tressel handbook by surrounding himself with people he is well acquainted with.
He virtually wiped out the OSU support staff, taking Mark Staten, Jeff Uhlenhake and Mike Tressel with him as full-time assistants. Plus, he brought in former colleague Don Treadwell as his offensive coordinator and hired Pat Narduzzi away from rival Miami (Ohio) as his defensive coordinator. Plus, he brought Marion (Ohio) Harding coach Tim Hinton, whom he worked alongside as a graduate assistant at OSU in the 1980s, with him as well.
"When we first were hired here, the first thing I wanted to do was hire a staff that cared about people," Dantonio said. "I wanted to hire people who were genuine that had no agendas, that related well with young people and got close to them. I think we were able to do that.
"Pat Narduzzi is our defensive coordinator. He had an outstanding defense at Miami (Ohio). They were first in six categories in the MAC last year. He brings a lot of enthusiasm to our defense. We brought Mike Tressel here from Ohio State. Harlen Barnett was at LSU last year and is a Cincinnati Princeton native. He was an All-American at Michigan State, who I knew up there, and he played seven years in the NFL.
"Ted Gill is a guy we retained. He had coached with the Carolina Panthers, Iowa, North Carolina and various other places. He brings a lot of toughness to our defensive front. "Don Treadwell is our offensive coordinator. I've know Tread since 1986, when he was with us at Youngstown State. He was the offensive coordinator for Coach Tressel when they won their first national championship. He's been at Boston College, Stanford and Michigan State, among other places.
"Coach Uhlenhake is our offensive line coach, Mark Staten is the tight ends coach and Tim Hinton has done a tremendous job since coming in here. He's done a successful job wherever he's been in Ohio. He brings a completely different aspect to our staff because he's been a high school coach the past 11 years. Dan Enos, who used to be the quarterback at Michigan State, we brought him in from North Dakota State. He does a tremendous job in terms of just the techniques of the quarterback.
"I think we have really great people. If you know anything about football, you know that you win with people. From that standpoint, I'm very proud of our coaches."
* Ohio State leads the all-time series with Cincinnati 11-2. The series began in 1893 with UC's only wins coming in 1896 and 1897, both in Cincinnati. The series was halted after a 67-4 win by OSU in 1931 at Ohio Stadium.
It resumed in 1999 as part of a three-for-one agreement between the schools (three games in Columbus, one in Cincinnati). UC actually held a 17-3 lead in that game before the Buckeyes rallied for a 34-20 win.
* Of course, the 2002 game at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, was memorable on many levels. It was OSU's first appearance in the Queen City in 91 years.
The Buckeyes played that game without starting tailback Maurice Clarett, who was sidelined with a torn meniscus. In his place, Lydell Ross, then a sophomore, carried 23 times for 130 yards. UC led 9-0 after one quarter, 12-7 at halftime and 19-14 after three quarters before OSU again rallied.
Craig Krenzel scored the winning touchdown on a bruising 6-yard run with 3:44 left. OSU then withstood a furious rally as Guidugli led a drive from his own 20 to the Buckeyes' 15 with 1:01 left. On first down, Guidugli threw a pass to the right corner of the end zone, where Jon Olinger had beaten freshman defensive back E.J. Underwood. Olinger had a clear shot at the ball, but he dropped it.
After an incompletion, Guidugli tossed a perfect throw on the fade route into the left corner of the end zone on third down. Murray, then a reserve receiver, dived and appeared to have the ball for an instant before it slipped through his hands.
On fourth down with 32 seconds remaining, Guidugli dropped and threw into the middle of the end zone to leading receiver LaDaris Vann. But the pass was tipped away by Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm and intercepted by Will Allen with 26 seconds left.
The game was played before a crowd of 66,319, the largest to ever see a sporting event in Cincinnati.
* Each team figures to start three players who started in that game. For OSU, that would be Ross, tight end Ryan Hamby (started in two tight end set) and cornerback Dustin Fox. For Cincinnati, that would be Takavitz, Guidugli and strong safety Doug Monaghan.
* OSU is 98-12-4 all-time in season opening games. The Buckeyes have not lost a season opening game since 1999, when they fell to Miami (Fla.) 23-12 in the Kickoff Classic.
* The Buckeyes have a string of 25 straight wins in home openers, dating to a 19-0 loss to Penn State in 1978.
* OSU is 275-65-9 all-time in games as a top-10 ranked team since the inception of The Associated Press poll in 1936. That mark includes a record of 25-3-1 in season openers as a top-10 team. The losses were in 1978 to Penn State, 1986 to Alabama (16-10 at the Kickoff Classic) and 1999 to Miami. The tie was against TCU (7-7) in 1961.
* The Buckeyes have won 16 straight home games, dating to a 34-22 loss to Illinois in the final home game in 2001. OSU is 20-2 at home in three seasons under Tressel.
* OSU also has a streak of 33 straight home wins against nonconference opponents, dating to a 35-26 loss to USC in 1990.
* There will be plenty of family ties in this game as UC assistant Mike Tressel is the son of first-year OSU assistant Dick Tressel and the nephew of Jim Tressel.
Plus, UC freshman running back Jon Carpenter is the brother of OSU junior linebacker Bobby Carpenter.
* Click the link below for our Game Data file, which includes pertinent info on this match-up as well as TV clearances, depth charts and my prediction on the game.