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’s been mediocre – or less than – for most of its 125 years.
But when Kelly says he’s happy at the University of Cincinnati, that he’s 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’s a rather large generalization. The word “nobody” 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’s one of his true talents, along with the coaching, the salesmanship, the public speaking, the media savvy, the humor. But Kelly can’t convince all of the public, because, let’s face it, he’s 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’s 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 – 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 – is the one that questions how long he’ll stick around Clifton. He hears it during every successful season, and now, the questions have followed him into the offseason as well.
“I’ve answered this question every way possible,” Kelly said. “Cincinnati has changed in such a way that people need to understand it’s 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.
“This 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’s happened so quickly that it’s hard. Even our university is grappling with, ‘Man, this thing has hit us square in the nose, and we have to be able to put it in its proper balance and perspective.’”
And with that question answered – at least for the next hour or so – Kelly talks about what he wants to talk about.
“When will you ask me about what kind of suits I like and what kind of restaurants I eat in?” he said. “Isn’t that what this magazine is about?”
Sure, why not.
“I do have a Canali suit,” he continued.
What about Armani?
No? OK, do you like wine?
“I like the 2006 Jordan Cabernet series, which is outstanding.”
Yeah, yeah. Cigars?
“I do like the Diamond Crown cigars. My choice is Straus Tobacconist, to be quite honest with you.”
Fair enough. Anything else you want to share before we get back to the interview?
“No, you know, it’s for just in case you get in a pinch. Now, you can cut and paste all you want.”
It’s conversations like this which make Kelly a star in this city. He’s funny, candid, articulate, witty, and he’s 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.
“Obviously getting to a BCS bowl game raises Cincinnati’s profile across the country,” said Mark Schlabach, who covers college football for ESPN.com. “But a lot of people still look at it as a basketball school because of what (Bob) Huggins did. I think it’s a good job, because it’s a BCS job. It’s been a diamond in the rough for awhile, because you have the Ohio recruiting base. But they’ve 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.”
There’s little doubt that – 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 – 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s hardly a deterrent to a big-time school.
“What are you comparing it to?” Kelly asked. “Are you comparing it to Ohio State? Ohio State has won four or five consecutive Big Ten championships and played for BCS’s. No, we’re not there yet. But give us a chance. We’ve only been at it two years and we’ve been in the top-20 both years. Give us a chance to keep building it. I think we can change people’s perception of what UC football is. I can’t control the perception, but I can control the success. We’re starting to get people to say, ‘Wow, maybe they can be good at football and basketball.’ This program is better than what people perceive it to be.”
Said athletic director Mike Thomas: “Hopefully, we’re not just a blip on the radar screen. We’re continuing to grow as a BCS program.”
That’s 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’d 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’s Irish Catholic. He has ties to the fertile recruiting grounds in Michigan and Ohio. He’s cocky and arrogant, but not in the make-an-ass-of-yourself way the smug Charlie Weis is.
“He would seem like a logical fit,” 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’s 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 – who, it should be noted, has interviewed for at least three jobs in the past two years and seriously considered leaving for one – would have a chance.
“If 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,” Kelly said. “I get it; I understand that. But that is such a projection of the perfect storm coming together. I’m going to do my job, and if that ever occurs, we’ll deal with that later. I could give you 50 names for that job. Let’s make the list. Why even worry about it? I’m flattered my name would even be brought up. But boy, there are a lot of football coaches. For me to sit around and say, ‘Is Weis going to get fired today?’ I just don’t do it that way.”
Besides, Kelly still has much work to accomplish when he’s done listing his favorite suits and cigars, when he’s done explaining why he’s not planning to search for other jobs.
The Bearcats season opens Sept. 7 with a tough conference game at Rutgers. Kelly doesn’t have time to worry about the outside perception of his program. He doesn’t care that nobody (well, hardly anybody) believes him.
“There are probably five jobs out there that have better than or equal access to a national title than we do,” Kelly said. “It’s not like 50. But why even worry about that? You have a great job. Go do your job.”
Until, perhaps, he has a new one. Or not.
Maybe, in fact, it’s time to take Kelly at his word, to stock up on what he’s selling, to nod your head in time to his proselytizing.
Maybe it’s finally time to believe him.