The Cincinnati Bearcats football program has been a work in progress to say the least. That progress, after many years of mediocre-at-best play and even some talk of disbanding the program, has finally paid off. The Cincinnati Bearcats are the 2008 outright Big East champions and will be playing on January 1st in one of the Bowl Championship Series games. Go ahead; repeat that to yourself one more time. Big East Champions - - sounds good doesn't it?
Whether you look back to the days of Rick Minter, or more recently to Mark Dantonio for a spot to declare as the foundation of where the Bearcats are today, one cannot deny that how quickly this program has transformed from obscurity to elite status is nothing short of astounding.
Whether it was the team's brightest stars, or the players who simply worked their tail off in practice to make others better, everyone played their part in making this the greatest season in the history of Bearcat football.
But at the heart of any winning team is their senior leaders, and things are no different for this year's Bearcats. When most of the seniors arrived in Clifton in 2005, they joined a Bearcats team which was entering into its first year in the Big East. They would finish that first season with a 4-7 record, winning just two Big East games all year. But from there on out, things would only get better.
As they matured as players, so did the Bearcats as a team. In 2006, the Bearcats won 8 games, and finished with a winning record in Big East conference play. They received a bid to play in the International Bowl, and in current Head Coach Brian Kelly's first game, defeated the Western Michigan Broncos 27-24.
In 2007, the Bearcats reached new heights by finishing with a 10-3 record, and another winning record in conference play. They received a bid to play Southern Miss in the PapaJohns.Com Bowl, and in front of the 10,000 fans that made the trip to Birmingham, they defeated the Eagles by a score of 31-21.
2008 brought high expectations for this Bearcats team, but many feared the loss of quarterback Ben Mauk would prevent them from competing for a Big East title. If you would have told many fans before the year that not only would Mauk not return for a 6th season, but that the Bearcats would be forced to shuffle through 5 other quarterbacks throughout the year, all hope may have been lost.
But this team never lost hope. They had faith in their quarterbacks; every one of them. And despite a couple of speed bumps along the way, they were able to achieve their goal - - a Big East title and a spot in a BCS bowl game on New Year's Day.
The Bearcats sealed their fate on Saturday afternoon with a win over the Syracuse Orangemen, and were finally able to begin the celebration as soon as the clock read all zeros. Coach Brian Kelly spoke to the media after the game about what it means to him to bring a conference championship to the Queen City.
"Well we finished what we started," said Kelly. "We started this year with the goal to become the BIG EAST Champions. I think there were 117 players in that room when we had that conversation, and I think the 117 people in that room believed it. When we started to show that we could play with anybody, we got other people to believe that Cincinnati football could be a BIG EAST champion."
Kelly says that if it can be done in other cities that play home to Big East teams, it can be done in Cincinnati as well.
"I think we have showed the city of Cincinnati and others associated that yes in fact if you can do it in Piscataway, New Jersey and Morgantown, West Virginia, you can do it in Cincinnati," said Kelly. "It is a great day to be a Bearcat. We're excited for what we're able to do in a very short period of time."
This year's senior class still has two games to be played, but regardless of what happens, there is no doubt that this group of players will leave behind a legacy that Cincinnati fans of all ages will remember for years to come. Brian Kelly says that while he isn't sure that these seniors knew coming in that they would change the foundation of Cincinnati football, he thinks they very well could go down as the most important senior class in school history.
"I don't know if this group immediately said, 'Hey we are going to change the complexion of UC football,'" said Kelly. "I think it was a collaborative effort. I think they really prepared us for the moment. When we lost at Connecticut, they are the ones that changed the direction on Sunday at practice. They can arguably be considered the most successful class at seniors."
Smith, an important part of the Cincinnati secondary, spoke about how it feels to go from where the program was when he arrived to where it is now.
"It feels great just coming a long way from C-USA to BIG EAST," said Smith. "I am really excited, but I'm really lost for words. We all came in together. We put our goals up there, and we accomplished them."
Senior defensive end Connor Barwin was asked about the Big East trophy, and how it compared to the others they earned this season.
"It's the best one because it is the hardest one to get," said Barwin. "It really sets the whole season. It was heavier than I thought. They kept on telling me to get to the locker room. It got kind of hard once I got to the 50 yard line. People were bumping into me, but I wasn't going to drop it."
Another player outside of the seniors who played a large role in the Bearcats remarkable run was receiver Mardy Gilyard. In the Big East finale against Syracuse he pulled in 11 passes for 114 yards. After the game, Mardy collapsed the field with two oranges in hand, taking it all in. With everything he has been through in his career so far, no one could blame Gilyard for being overcome with emotion, and he spoke about his feelings to the media.
"I was ecstatic," said Gilyard. "I was trying to keep everyone from seeing me cry or anything. I came in with Connor and the other seniors. We came in together, and I kind of slacked off in the classroom. It was touching to see everyone come together and go out with a bang. Coach Dantonio told us that we could win the BIG EAST, and now it is right in our face. I'm just lost for words because it is utter bliss."
The Bearcats head to Hawai'i next weekend to take on the Warriors. Despite having won the Big East already, a win is still very important to this team. Not only would it increase their ranking even further headed into the bowl game, but it would also give Cincinnati its first 11 win season in program history. Coach Kelly spoke to the concerns that fans felt coming into today's game, and assured everyone that they would be ready to play against Hawai'i.
"They don't want to stop playing," said Kelly. "For us, there wasn't a challenge for us today except the intrinsic motivation to go out and play your best. When you get that from your group because it is a game, you don't have to worry about those things. Teams that have to worry about that, the message isn't right. Our guys can't wait to play, and they will go out to Hawaii and play hard. We finish out the season by representing the BIG EAST in the BCS bowl."
The Bearcats will have to wait until December 7th to find out their bowl destination and opponent, but in the mean time they will turn their focus towards there next opponent, and making sure they continue their winning ways.