Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville leads his team onto the field before the game against the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Nippert Stadium.
Robert Leifheit/Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Tuberville’s last trip to Charlotte was spent watching the Cincinnati Bearcats from an arm’s length distance. He watched from the sidelines as they practiced to play Duke in the Belk Bowl under then-interim coach Steve Stripling. He watched from a private box as they fell behind 16-0 in the first quarter before rallying for a wild 48-34 victory.
Tuberville has been out in front of the UC program ever since in a wild and successful year.
The Bearcats (9-3) return to Charlotte for Saturday’s Belk Bowl, this time against North Carolina (6-6). UC has a shot at winning a 10th game for the sixth time in seven seasons. That it has that possibility shouldn’t be underestimated or glossed over.
Coaching changes are never easy. There’s never a good time for them and when Butch Jones left UC last year to take the job at Tennessee it stung a little extra. That wasn’t all because of Jones. He just happened to be the next coach to leave following in the footsteps of Mark Dantonio to Michigan State and Brian Kelly to Notre Dame. There’s no doubt that it stung and hurt in Lubbock, Texas, when Tuberville resigned from Texas Tech to take the UC job.
Yet in Cincinnati, the Bearcats have continued to win despite the departures and turnover.
That says an awful lot about Tuberville, his coaching staff, the players and everyone associated with the program.
"Here’s the thing that nobody really talks about: the last time we had a coaching change we went 4-8," said senior defensive lineman Jordan Stepp. "It’s really hard at this level to learn all that you need to know to be successful in less than a year. You don’t see that. I think this staff has done an incredible job of meeting us halfway in terms of the language and the communication to where we can all speak the same football language."
Speaking that same language, Stepp said, allows for in-game and halftime adjustments. It allows for coaches to get their message across during the practice week.
As a team, when you play, you also need to learn something about life and perseverance
"For a team to only have coach for one year and be able to do that is crazy," said Stepp. "It’s something that in the past has always been a second year sort of thing or even the third year and this year’s communication has been on a whole new level of any team I’ve been on since I’ve been here."
There didn’t appear to be much communicating going on in the middle of the season. UC was 3-2, coming off a loss at South Florida after needing 55 minutes to get on the board against a Miami (Ohio) team that gave up points just walking out of its locker room. Quarterback Munchie Legaux was lost for the season with a knee injury at Illinois in the second game of the season.
A more serious loss was the death of freshman offensive lineman Ben Flick in a car accident after the Miami game, an accident that resulted in the death of Sean VanDyne, a childhood friend of Flick, and injuries to UC freshmen wide receivers Javon Harrison and Mark Barr.
UC won six of its last seven games, its lone loss coming in overtime against No. 15 Louisville in the season finale.
"As a team, when you play, you also need to learn something about life and perseverance," said Tuberville. "To win nine games in your first year with a totally different coaching staff, to have 15 major surgeries, have a death on your team, it makes you feel good about what sports is about, what football is about, about playing as a team and a group. Everybody has to play their role, improve each week.
"This has got to be one of the most improved teams I’ve ever been around from the beginning of the season to the end of the season."
The hiring of Tuberville was a coup for UC. Dantonio came from Ohio State where he helped the Buckeyes win a national title in 2002 as their defensive coordinator but he was a first-time head coach. Kelly and Jones came from Central Michigan. They had been successful in the MAC but UC was playing for BCS berths. The landscape of college football and conference alignments has changed that but the Bearcats still have lofty aspirations. They don’t want to be left behind.
Tuberville was instant credibility. He had coached in the SEC at Mississippi and Auburn and in the Big 12 at Texas Tech. Most importantly, he’s not looking at UC as a stepping stone.
"I was really pleased with the year. I was grateful for his leadership," said UC athletic director Whit Babcock. "The wins are good but he’s equally as good in the community. I think that Cincinnati is a town that is very welcoming if you’re one of them and you do it sincerely. He’s been great in the community, on campus and everywhere. It’s a long way to say that I’m really pleased with the way that it’s headed."
The UC players showed a lot of character at the end of last season. Stripling led a skeleton coaching staff that included grad assistants, injured players acting as assistants and volunteers. Brendon Kay was named the game’s MVP after throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns, the last one going to tight end Travis Kelce for an 83-yard score that broke a 34-34 tie with 44 seconds left in regulation.
Kay has battled injuries all season, particularly a sore shoulder. He’s was hobbled by a bad ankle against Louisville. He may be as healthy as he’s been all season when this year’s Belk Bowl kicks off.
This time, Tuberville will be an active participant instead of an interested spectator.
"We learned in the past what to do and what not to do in a coaching change. We had to buy in 100 percent and I felt that’s what this team did," said Kay. "I’ve learned a lot from (Tuberville). When you’ve got a guy who has been around as long as he has when he talks you take it all in. I’ve learned a lot by just the way he carries himself. He has control of this team."