“We walked off [at halftime], and the adversity was in the 7-7 at the half, and for the first time we heard a little bit of boos,” Cincinnati Coach Luke Fickell said in a hallway soon after the nitpicking. “And some people would say, ‘That’s awful.’ I would say, ‘That’s good,’ because they have an expectation.”
What’s Cincinnati football? It’s a program the country sort of knows but sort of doesn’t. It’s one that operates for now from the resentful football proletariat known wackily as the Group of Five but is about to feel the lushness of the Power Five given its recent acceptance of a Big 12 invitation. It’s one of those programs the haughty programs have raided for coaches so that fans feel that gnaw of worry about the coach leaving, even if the Big 12 does give the entrenched Ohioan of a coach one fewer reason to leave. It’s a program that’s having itself a moment after a vertigo 21st century of four conferences, five double-digit-win seasons from 2007 to 2012 under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones and one dip under Tommy Tuberville in the mid-2010s.
It’s a program that has risen under Fickell to frequent the top 10 lately, go 33-6 since 2018, heighten its national image, burnish its self-image and treat its fans to a scenario so many fans relish: a season (2020) with the chance to feel aggrieved about playoff rankings. (The Bearcats went 9-1 and finished No. 8.) And it’s a program about to take a three-week tour of its own evolution, with a bout at Indiana coming Saturday, an off week coming after that and a bout at Notre Dame coming Oct. 2.
All of this comes under Fickell, a 48-year-old who has seen some world-class nitpicking in his day, having dwelled in the nitpicking haven of Ohio State as a defensive lineman, an assistant coach, an interim head coach and an assistant coach again before reaching Cincinnati in December 2016 and mining the football talent right smack nearby.
“What we wanted when we came here,” Fickell said, “was to have people in the crowd, people to be upset at you when things weren’t going well. Our first two years here, they didn’t know if you did well. They didn’t care if you did bad. And you really want to create that environment when there is an expectation, they are upset when things aren’t well because you have this, you’ve built this expectation, this persona, this image of the way that you do things. I know it happens in [Cincinnati] basketball when they don’t do well; there’s a lot of heat and a lot of flak because of their image and the history of what they’ve done. And it’s nice to feel that pressure; it’s nice to feel that intensity. Even though some people would say it’s a boo, it’s a boo because they care.”
What’s Cincinnati? It’s a 136-year-old program at a 46,000-strong campus with the Big 12 about to become the 10th conference in its vagabond history. It’s a program with the second-oldest stadium in the country, a thoroughgoing gem called Nippert with 40,000 seats tucked squarely into the hilly campus, where students sit in bleachers with laptops during daytime breaks and where, from the 111-year-old building of the Dieterle Vocal Arts Center behind the end zone, you might just get to hear insanely talented and diligent humans practice arias.
What’s Cincinnati? “Gritty,” said relatively new athletic director John Cunningham, a law-degree holder who got his start in athletics in compliance at the Maryland of Ralph Friedgen and Gary Williams and Brenda Frese winning the national title. “That’s a word you hear a lot around here. I think that’s how it looks at itself. I think it comes from the town that we live in. It’s a river town. It’s a manufacturing town. It’s got that Midwestern vibe and those Midwestern values, and I think when we look at Cincinnati and the Bearcats, we’re just going to work as hard as we possibly can. It’s not going to come easy, especially when you’re not in one of those top conferences right now. It’s not going to come easy, got a little chip on your shoulder and go compete.”
Yet, uh-oh, it’s also a place-to-be right about now, the evidence provided by Michael Young Jr., a wide receiver from greater New Orleans who played three seasons at Notre Dame. Young went into the hallowed transfer portal after 2019 and while in there gave Cincinnati a spot in “the forefront of my brain,” he said, because he knew offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock but also because Cincinnati had notched a presence among young, helmeted minds.
So he led the Bearcats in receptions last year, and he calls the program’s culture “heartwarming” and “very welcoming, very accepting” and says, “It shows on Saturdays.”
While Young called Fickell a “stickler for the rules,” he said: “It’s more of a let-it-fly. You know, play with your hair on fire but have fun. Do what you’re supposed to do, and everything else will take care of itself. But don’t go out there and play like a robot; don’t go out there and, you know, overthink things.”
That fun birthed a buzz, and then the Big 12 trucked in some further buzz: “I think the one thing that caught my eye specifically,” Young said, “was when they announced us moving to the Big 12.” He paused and smiled. “This campus was just a frenzy. They were so excited. You could feel it in the air.”
Rummage through the 25-strong list of schools that in 2017 offered scholarships to tight end Josh Whyle, a Cincinnati native who grew up Bearcat-minded. The list includes eight Big Ten schools. And voilà, it includes only one school (Oregon) currently ranked above No. 8 Cincinnati. But then it also includes several schools that upheld the grand and shabby traditions of recruiting in America by telling Whyle he had erred. He thinks it might be fun to call them up and say, “I told you so,” but of course, he won’t.
“The best word I could put it is just ‘belief,’ ” he said, “in this program and this team. When we were seniors in high school, this UC team went 4-8.”
“I think,” Cunningham said, “last year put us on the map more than we’ve been in a while,” including boxing with Georgia in a 24-21 Peach Bowl loss. “And then we anchored ourselves in the top 10, right? When you do that, now expectations are different. People are coming at you in a different way. And you know, again, you win, 42-7, and people have questions — well that means that you must be doing something right, that they want you to do that well and be that on point.”
Now, with the anti-establishment more established, Whyle has a telling memory: “I forget what year it was,” he said, “but we were playing a home game, and there was a Little League football team down in the stands, right where my Little League football team had been sitting, I guess, 10 years ago. And it was just cool to see that. I know how much that means to those kids at that age, and just being able to perform for them at this level is really cool.”
Pretty soon, those kids might even nitpick.