Monday May 11th, 2009

CINCINNATI -- A few minutes after Cincinnati's April 25 spring game, coach Brian Kelly stood with a recruit in an end zone at Nippert Stadium. As Kelly spoke, the recruit's eyes kept drifting to Kelly's hand, where a massive ring gleamed under the stadium lights. Kelly noticed that the recruit noticed, and that made him smile.

"Tangible evidence," Kelly said later, when asked whether his recently acquired 2008 Big East championship ring draws that kind of attention from every recruit.

In the battle for the hearts, minds and signatures of the best players in one of America's premier football hotbeds, tangible evidence is a requirement. Dozens of athletic, well coached high school studs surround Cincinnati's campus, but for the longest time, those players barely knew the Bearcats existed. If Ohio State didn't want them, they would scatter throughout the Big Ten, Big East and SEC. But Kelly and previous coach Mark Dantonio worked hard to make Cincinnati a viable option, and Kelly took the biggest stride last season when he led Cincinnati to a Big East title and an Orange Bowl berth in his second season. "We're in play," Kelly said. "We have relevance now. We weren't relevant the last couple of years in terms of getting a BCS player to stay here."

Now comes an even greater challenge: proving the 2008 title wasn't a fluke. "One-hit-wonders are one-hit-wonders for a reason," Kelly said. "We don't want to be that. We want to be perceived as a program that not only is on the move but that is going to be around for a while."

Of course, the Bearcats have been around for a while -- since 1885, to be exact -- but they spent most of the intervening years either as an Independent or bouncing around between lower-tier conferences such as the Ohio, the Buckeye and the Missouri Valley. Cincinnati joined Conference USA in 1996, but BCS schools like Minnesota and Indiana still trounced the Bearcats on the recruiting trail. That changed in 2005, though, when Cincinnati joined the revamped Big East.

Now, Kelly can walk into a recruit's living room, flash that ring and sell big-time dreams. Of course, those dreams will seem a little more realistic if Kelly and his players can maintain the momentum from last year's conference title. "It's more important," receiver Mardy Gilyard said, "than winning it the first time." Said quarterback Tony Pike: "It's almost an obligation. We don't want to be remembered as the class that went to the Orange Bowl our junior year and came back and didn't do anything our senior year."

Pike is the key cog in the repeat bid wheel. For seven consecutive seasons, Kelly began spring practice needing to choose a starting quarterback. This year, he has Pike, who was buried on the depth chart in spring 2008 but emerged as the Bearcats dealt with an unfortunate NCAA eligibility ruling (Ben Mauk) and an injury (broken leg to Dustin Grutza). Kelly's system gives Pike almost complete autonomy. He sets the protection and has the freedom to change the play as he sees fit. Kelly had worried about giving over so much control in the past, but Pike seems to truly understand the offense. "Last year, there was the indecision. Now, it's rapid-fire," Pike said. "You see it happen and boom, you're changing the protection and you're changing the route."

Kelly puts it another way. "We've been running a hybrid," he said. "Now we've got the Cadillac. It'll be nice to ride a little bit."

With Pike, an experienced line and All-Big East receiver Gilyard (1,276 yards, 11 touchdowns in 2008), the Bearcats should have little trouble scoring points. Stopping opponents might be more of a problem. Cincinnati lost 10 defensive starters, including defensive end Connor Barwin, who led the Big East in sacks after switching from tight end. With so many new players, Kelly decided to shake up the scheme. He fired coordinator Joe Tresey and replaced him with Bob Diaco, a Virginia assistant who had served under Kelly at Central Michigan. Diaco brought a 3-4 scheme that, for the time being, remains a mystery to the outside world.

Because the Bearcats open the season against conference rival Rutgers, Kelly ordered Diaco to run a vanilla defense in the spring game. That way, Rutgers coaches will have to watch tape of Diaco's old defenses and guess at how he might use Cincinnati's existing personnel.

Cincinnati probably isn't yet to the point where it can replace 10 defensive starters without missing a beat, but Kelly hopes he can get the program to that level through recruiting. He'll certainly be considered for other jobs if he keeps winning, but he should choose very carefully which ones he pursues, because he already sits atop a gold mine. And he knows it.

The state of Ohio produced 441 BCS-level players between 2004-09. That's an average of 73.5 a year. Kelly has done that math, too. Even if he cedes the top 25 in the state to Ohio State, he has almost two full recruiting classes worth of homegrown talent from which to choose. Kelly, a one-time grassroots politico who worked on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign (the election before all that Monkey Business), likes those odds. "I really don't need to beat Ohio State," he said. "I need to beat Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Louisville, West Virginia and all teams that come into Ohio because there's great talent here. So I've got to hold serve against those teams. If Ohio State takes 25, I've still got the numbers in my favor."

Kelly also is smart enough to know he and his staff don't have to spread themselves too thin scouring the country for players. "Within 100 miles of this area, you can do all your shopping," he said. "We're going to do all our shopping here. We can get the players necessary to win championships right here in this area."

So far, the plan seems to be working. Chris Williams, a four-star defensive back from Cincinnati's Winton Woods High, chose the Bearcats over West Virginia and Minnesota. "You get to make a lot of history," Williams said. "UC is just starting to get on the tracks as far as making it to the big games and winning big games. Other schools have all this tradition and all the accolades. I just wanted to be a part of history."

Now that high-profile players want to come to Cincinnati, Kelly may have to alter his mindset. The coach, who won back-to-back Division II national titles at Grand Valley State before leaving for Central Michigan, isn't accustomed to being the lead dog on the recruiting trail. "For 13 years, I had to take the guys nobody wanted, Kelly said. "My background, my expertise, how I learned to be a head coach, was to develop players. I'm not comfortable with four-star guys. I'm more comfortable taking Connor Barwin -- who was 215 pounds -- and developing him. I'm more comfortable taking [tight end-turned-first round-offensive tackle] Joe Staley at Central Michigan."

But if he keeps winning at this level, Kelly will have to recruit highly touted players before they beat a path to his door. Kelly, who already has put his Big East title ring to use in the hunt for talent, should understand. They're all attracted to the glow.

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