Written by: Craig Heimbuch
Is It Time to Believe Brian Kelly?
By Josh Katzowitz
Nobody believes Brian Kelly. Nobody buys what the salesman is pitching, nobody has faith in the politician who makes his plea, nobody thinks what the coach says is true.
They believe in Brian Kelly, no doubt. They believe he can win, change the mind of a city apathetic about the only Bowl Championship Series team in town, accomplish the unprecedented for a program that‚Äôs been mediocre ‚Äď or less than ‚Äď for most of its 125 years.
But when Kelly says he‚Äôs happy at the University of Cincinnati, that he‚Äôs not looking to leave for greener pastures and greener bank accounts, that he thinks the Bearcats football program can become a national power, well, nobody believes it.
OK, that‚Äôs a rather large generalization. The word ‚Äúnobody‚ÄĚ is a bit strong. There are people who take Kelly at his word. His family, for one. His boss, UC athletic director Mike Thomas, for another. The team who obeys his orders from August until January, also. Maybe, some of the fans who have hungered a half-century for a Bearcats team that wins consistently, as well.
Kelly can make a believer out of those constituents and out of some others. That‚Äôs one of his true talents, along with the coaching, the salesmanship, the public speaking, the media savvy, the humor. But Kelly can‚Äôt convince all of the public, because, let‚Äôs face it, he‚Äôs a football coach. And football coaches leave for better jobs.
Sid Gillman left UC in 1954, Tony Mason left UC in 1976 and Mark Dantonio left UC in 2006. These were the coaches who had the most success at UC. All of them left for better opportunities. Now, Kelly has the program in a different dimension than any of the aforementioned. The Bearcats last year clawed their way to the Orange Bowl, the program‚Äôs first BCS bowl game appearance. They won the Big East conference title. They scored 11 victories in a season for the first time ever. They are national players on the football field and in the recruiting circuit.
But the query Kelly receives over and over again ‚Äď the question that makes him shift his body weight in the chair, the one that makes him roll his eyes, the one that makes him breathe the shortest of sighs ‚Äď is the one that questions how long he‚Äôll stick around Clifton. He hears it during every successful season, and now, the questions have followed him into the offseason as well.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve answered this question every way possible,‚ÄĚ Kelly said. ‚ÄúCincinnati has changed in such a way that people need to understand it‚Äôs no longer just a job that you take so you can get another job. People have to change the way they see Cincinnati and this football program. That really, from my perspective, is the difference.
‚ÄúThis is a job you can stay at and win and be in the BCS and get the kind of national attention that one would want. It starts with people having to understand that UC has changed dramatically with this football program. It‚Äôs happened so quickly that it‚Äôs hard. Even our university is grappling with, ‚ÄėMan, this thing has hit us square in the nose, and we have to be able to put it in its proper balance and perspective.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
And with that question answered ‚Äď at least for the next hour or so ‚Äď Kelly talks about what he wants to talk about.
‚ÄúWhen will you ask me about what kind of suits I like and what kind of restaurants I eat in?‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIsn‚Äôt that what this magazine is about?‚ÄĚ
Sure, why not.
‚ÄúI do have a Canali suit,‚ÄĚ he continued.
What about Armani?
No? OK, do you like wine?
‚ÄúI like the 2006 Jordan Cabernet series, which is outstanding.‚ÄĚ
Yeah, yeah. Cigars?
‚ÄúI do like the Diamond Crown cigars. My choice is Straus Tobacconist, to be quite honest with you.‚ÄĚ
Fair enough. Anything else you want to share before we get back to the interview?
‚ÄúNo, you know, it‚Äôs for just in case you get in a pinch. Now, you can cut and paste all you want.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs conversations like this which make Kelly a star in this city. He‚Äôs funny, candid, articulate, witty, and he‚Äôs rarely flummoxed by an inquiry. He knows how to play this game. The only question is this: will he take his game and find another city in which to play?
The probable answer is yes.
‚ÄúObviously getting to a BCS bowl game raises Cincinnati‚Äôs profile across the country,‚ÄĚ said Mark Schlabach, who covers college football for ESPN.com. ‚ÄúBut a lot of people still look at it as a basketball school because of what (Bob) Huggins did. I think it‚Äôs a good job, because it‚Äôs a BCS job. It‚Äôs been a diamond in the rough for awhile, because you have the Ohio recruiting base. But they‚Äôve been playing second fiddle to Ohio State. With their budget problems, you wonder if they can afford to keep him to what other school can pay him.‚ÄĚ
There‚Äôs little doubt that ‚Äď with the contributions of former coaches Rick Minter (who rarely gets the credit he deserves for laying the first foundation) and Dantonio, former athletic director Bob Goin, and former president Nancy Zimpher ‚Äď the UC coaching position is a much better job than it was last decade. With no championship game to play and with no consistent power in the rest of the league, the road to a Big East title is an easier slog than anything in the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten or the Big 12.
It‚Äôs easier to win a national title at UC than it is at Kentucky or Michigan State or Nebraska. That is a significant perk of Kelly‚Äôs job. Now, after signing a new contract in June that pays him a guaranteed $1.475 million (though he could earn closer to $2 million with his incentives) and with the administration‚Äôs commitment to building new practice facilities, Kelly feels comfortable he can continue transforming the Bearcats from mediocre to magical.
Yet, there are better jobs out there, for sure. And with a relatively small buyout clause ($1 million the first year, and a quarter million less each additional season), that‚Äôs hardly a deterrent to a big-time school.
‚ÄúWhat are you comparing it to?‚ÄĚ Kelly asked. ‚ÄúAre you comparing it to Ohio State? Ohio State has won four or five consecutive Big Ten championships and played for BCS‚Äôs. No, we‚Äôre not there yet. But give us a chance. We‚Äôve only been at it two years and we‚Äôve been in the top-20 both years. Give us a chance to keep building it. I think we can change people‚Äôs perception of what UC football is. I can‚Äôt control the perception, but I can control the success. We‚Äôre starting to get people to say, ‚ÄėWow, maybe they can be good at football and basketball.‚Äô This program is better than what people perceive it to be.‚ÄĚ
Said athletic director Mike Thomas: ‚ÄúHopefully, we‚Äôre not just a blip on the radar screen. We‚Äôre continuing to grow as a BCS program.‚ÄĚ
That‚Äôs true, but what Schlabach says also is correct. UC has massive budget and debt problems, a stadium and basketball arena that gives the school almost no new revenue streams, and a coach who wants all the improvements completed by tomorrow. If the Bearcats keep winning, their fundraisers probably can find enough donors to keep increasing salary for Kelly and his assistant coaches. But at some point, you‚Äôd figure, there will come an impenetrable ceiling.
Or Notre Dame will fire coach Charlie Weis and come after Kelly.
The job in South Bend seems like the perfect fit for Kelly. He‚Äôs Irish Catholic. He has ties to the fertile recruiting grounds in Michigan and Ohio. He‚Äôs cocky and arrogant, but not in the make-an-ass-of-yourself way the smug Charlie Weis is.
‚ÄúHe would seem like a logical fit,‚ÄĚ Schlabach said.
Another Notre Dame source agrees. This observer believes Weis probably will have to win nine games in order to remain in his job (though with the Fighting Irish‚Äôs relatively weak schedule, a nine-win season is a real possibility). But if Weis, once again, falters, Kelly could be on the short list of potential replacements.
Urban Meyer (who said in mid-July that he would not ever leave Florida for Notre Dame) would be the top choice. Then, perhaps former NFL coaches Jon Gruden or Tony Dungy would receive calls. Then, maybe Kelly ‚Äď who, it should be noted, has interviewed for at least three jobs in the past two years and seriously considered leaving for one ‚Äď would have a chance.
‚ÄúIf Notre Dame comes open and Charlie Weis decides he wants to be the offensive coordinator, my name is going to get thrown around for the job,‚ÄĚ Kelly said. ‚ÄúI get it; I understand that. But that is such a projection of the perfect storm coming together. I‚Äôm going to do my job, and if that ever occurs, we‚Äôll deal with that later. I could give you 50 names for that job. Let‚Äôs make the list. Why even worry about it? I‚Äôm flattered my name would even be brought up. But boy, there are a lot of football coaches. For me to sit around and say, ‚ÄėIs Weis going to get fired today?‚Äô I just don‚Äôt do it that way.‚ÄĚ
Besides, Kelly still has much work to accomplish when he‚Äôs done listing his favorite suits and cigars, when he‚Äôs done explaining why he‚Äôs not planning to search for other jobs.
The Bearcats season opens Sept. 7 with a tough conference game at Rutgers. Kelly doesn‚Äôt have time to worry about the outside perception of his program. He doesn‚Äôt care that nobody (well, hardly anybody) believes him.
‚ÄúThere are probably five jobs out there that have better than or equal access to a national title than we do,‚ÄĚ Kelly said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not like 50. But why even worry about that? You have a great job. Go do your job.‚ÄĚ
Until, perhaps, he has a new one. Or not.
Maybe, in fact, it‚Äôs time to take Kelly at his word, to stock up on what he‚Äôs selling, to nod your head in time to his proselytizing.
Maybe it‚Äôs finally time to believe him.