12-0 Bearcats get ready for bowl without Kelly
The unbeaten Cincinnati Bearcats are heading into the biggest bowl game in school history with anger, uncertainty and an interim head coach who may not be around much longer.
It's time to move on.
In many ways, the Bearcats have to move on from coach Brian Kelly before they can move on to the Sugar Bowl, their reward for finishing third in the BCS rankings. The game took on a whole different mood when Kelly left for Notre Dame on Friday, leaving the Big East champions shocked and unsure what comes next.
``It's hard, man, but we can't let it get us down,'' junior receiver Armon Binns said after Kelly told his team he'd accepted the Notre Dame job on Thursday night. ``We've got a really, really big game ahead of us. When it comes down to it, we were the guys on the field out there. They were the ones calling the shots.''
Athletic director Mike Thomas began looking for Kelly's replacement, though it's unclear whether a new coach will be around for the Sugar Bowl on New Year's night against Florida. Thomas decided that Kelly wouldn't coach the Bearcats in their bowl game. Offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn - who has been with Kelly for the past 22 years - was named interim coach.
``I think at this point moving forward, the focus should be on our (players) and the coaches,'' Thomas said. ``Certainly I feel confident that coach Quinn and our staff, we'll be in pretty good shape when we move to New Orleans after Christmas.''
A lot is yet to be determined.
Thomas hired Kelly after Mark Dantonio accepted the Michigan State job following the last regular-season game in 2006. Kelly was hired from Central Michigan eight days later and coached the Bearcats in the International Bowl.
It's unclear whether Quinn would be considered for the full-time job because he has never been a head coach. Quinn was Kelly's top assistant and offensive coordinator at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, helping him refine the no-huddle, spread offense that was one of the nation's best.
If Quinn isn't a candidate in Cincinnati, Kelly would likely want to bring him to Notre Dame to transplant their offense.
The uncertainty left the players rattled.
``If I was a senior, I probably wouldn't care as much,'' junior tight end Ben Guidugli said. ``But coming back next year and all that's involved in that, and then the bowl game - we really don't know what's going on. They said coach Quinn was the interim. I don't know. Hopefully we can get on the field and everybody can just concentrate on football.''
The players had off this week to take final exams. They spent a big part of it talking and texting each other about all the rumors involving Kelly. How they finally got the news left some of them bitter. Kelly's hiring by Notre Dame had already been reported for several hours when he finally took them aside after their football banquet at a downtown hotel and told them the news on Thursday night.
It's not how he had told them he would handle it.
``He told us from the get-go that we'd be the first people to know whatever he decides,'' quarterback Tony Pike said before the banquet.
Instead, they were among the last.
Receiver Mardy Gilyard, who was honored as the team's Most Valuable Player, said younger players were angry over Kelly's decision to leave after only three years at Cincinnati.
``They feel they bought into a situation they were going to be in for the long haul, and now the general kind of let the reins go,'' Gilyard said. ``It is what it is. I'm old enough to know it's a business move. If I was a younger guy, I'd be bummed out about it.''
Several players said there was silence as Kelly told them in an unemotional tone that he was leaving for Notre Dame. Then, the assistant coaches left the room and the players met by themselves.
``We got the coaches out of there, then the players just said that we're the ones on the field making the touchdowns, getting the sacks, blocking, tackling,'' Guidugli said. ``So when we step on the field, we're a bunch of guys that know what to do.''
Players also began wondering who might become Kelly's successor.
The last two coaches - Dantonio and Kelly - had Midwest coaching backgrounds and experience recruiting in the talent-rich area. Kelly's three most prominent quarterbacks - Ben Mauk, Pike and sophomore Zach Collaros - came from Ohio high schools.
There were reports on Friday that Houston's Kevin Sumlin could be among those considered. His team runs a wide-open passing offense that would suit Cincinnati's current talent. Thomas declined to talk about his search.
The Bearcats return the nucleus of their offense, including Collaros, who led them to wins in four games after Pike got hurt. Players are hoping that Kelly's successor is like-minded.
``Hopefully they bring in somebody with a passing scheme who is going to throw the ball like we did, and we can just pick up where they left off and keep it going,'' Binns said.