Tuberville looks to build on Cincinnati's momentum
CINCINNATI -- After spending the past 17 years in the rural locales of Oxford, Miss., Auburn, Ala., and Lubbock, Texas, Tommy Tuberville currently resides in a condominium on the downtown Cincinnati riverfront. Often, after work, he walks to Great American Ball Park, where he attended five of the Reds' first six home games. He's a regular at the famed Montgomery Inn at the Boathouse, and last month, he looked out his window and saw a parade of animals being unloaded next to U.S. Bank Arena -- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had come to town.
"So I went down to Ringling Brothers by myself, watched a little of the circus," said Tuberville. "It's brought me back to my Miami years, there's so much to do."
Few who have lived or visited both places would draw cultural comparisons between the homes of South Beach and Skyline Chili. But for Tuberville, the more apt parallel may be between the school where he cut his teeth as an assistant from 1986-93 and the one he took over as head coach last December.
"This is the first time since the University of Miami that I've been to a place that, within a 20-mile radius of your campus, if you just recruit that area and you have success there, you don't have to go much farther," said Tuberville, the new football coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats. "At Miami that's what we made a living of. Cincinnati reminds me almost duplicate of what Miami was."
No one would sanely predict that the Bearcats are about to replicate the success of the '80s and '90s-era Hurricanes and win four national championships in less than a decade -- certainly not while playing in a de facto mid-major conference currently in the process of changing names. But sitting in his office overlooking 89-year-old Nippert Stadium, the former Texas Tech, Auburn and Ole Miss headman seems more at home than most imagined he'd be when he made what seemed like a puzzling move last December. Cincinnati's urban campus takes him back to his time at another largely overshadowed pro-city program, one that was still relatively new to the national spotlight at the time.
Tuberville went to work at Miami in 1986 under Jimmy Johnson, who had followed program savior Howard Schnellenberger two years earlier and would depart two years later, passing the torch to Dennis Erickson. At Cincinnati, Tuberville follows a trio of successful coaches -- Mark Dantonio (now at Michigan State), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and Butch Jones (Tennessee) -- who elevated the Bearcats to unprecedented heights. Cincinnati had never finished ranked in the final AP or Coaches' Poll prior to 2007; it has now accomplished that feat in five of the past six years. It played in BCS bowls in 2008 (Orange) and '09 (Sugar), and, according to data compiled by the school, ranks 16th in cumulative BCS standings over the past six seasons, higher than the likes of Penn State, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Michigan.
"Look at all those trophies over there," said Tuberville, motioning to a display of recent conference and bowl trophies Jones had installed in the office. "It's probably the most underrated success story in college football, from where they came from to where they are now -- winning games, going to the Sugar Bowl. You lose three head coaches to other schools, and there's no letup."
Tuberville, 58, insists he won't be the fourth straight coach to bolt Cincinnati for greener pastures -- but few outside Cincinnati believe him.
It's no secret that Tuberville was never fully embraced in Lubbock following the controversial 2009 ouster of the highly popular Mike Leach. Nor was the defensive-minded coach fully comfortable in the high-scoring Big 12. It was reported after the fact that Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt had expressed dissatisfaction with Tuberville's program following poor finishes in 2011 and '12. Cincinnati AD Whit Babcock, a friend since their time together at Auburn more than a decade ago, seemingly offered a convenient parachute when he called on the morning of Dec. 8.
But Babcock first planted the seeds in a conversation much earlier in the season. Sensing he'd soon lose third-year coach Jones, the AD called Tuberville and another former colleague, Missouri's Gary Pinkel, to pick their brains about possible replacement candidates. It was during that call that Babcock first learned that Tuberville's wife, Suzanne, hails from Guilford, Ind., just 30 miles away from campus. He tucked that nugget away.
"As Butch's visibility grew, I kept a three-ring binder of [potential successors]," said Babcock. "Coach Tuberville didn't know he was in there, but once I put him in there, he was the cream of the crop."
Jones left for Tennessee on Dec. 7. Babcock called Tuberville the next morning. Tuberville discussed the possibility with Suzanne, and they were on a plane to the Queen City later that afternoon. Tuberville will make a reported $2.2 million per year, a slight raise from his $2 million salary at Texas Tech. He recently donated $300,000 over five years to the school's Olympic sports.
Cincinnati captured 10-win seasons and Big East co-championships in each of the past two years under Jones. Tuberville, 85-40 in 10 seasons at Auburn and 130-77 overall, wants to continue that momentum. But he'll do it his way. First-time offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, a longtime former Tuberville assistant at Ole Miss and Auburn who spent the last three years at Florida State, will run a mix of pro-style and spread sets. Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, who came with Tuberville from Texas Tech, will run a 4-3.
And the staff plans to recruit like mad.
Gran, defensive ends coach Robert Prunty and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw, in particular, are known as strong recruiters. Prunty was named Big East recruiter of the year by Scout.com despite arriving barely a month before Signing Day.
"We've got to set our philosophy and start recruiting to it," said Tuberville, who again cited his experience at Miami. "Stay as close to home as you can, really evaluate all kids, don't get stuck on reading the lists and the four- and five-stars. Most of the time we were at Miami we weren't ranked that high in recruiting but we were kicking everybody's butt every year. It mostly came from evaluation of players in town."
The staff's methods garnered backlash last January from several previously committed Cincinnati recruits and at least one high school coach who claimed players had their scholarships pulled by the new staff, though it's been disputed how solidly committed those players were. Meanwhile, Hinshaw, formerly of Tennessee, recently pulled off a coup in landing Gunner Kiel, the onetime five-star quarterback prospect now transferring from Notre Dame after one season.
Going forward, Tuberville's staff will try to identify less heralded prospects, which may help negate the biggest recruiting obstacle currently facing the Bearcats -- their conference. Even though the old Big East was held in lesser regard than the Big Ten or SEC, Cincinnati could at least use the league's BCS automatic-qualifier status as a carrot. It could cite the fact Kelly's 2009 team came within a last-second Texas field goal of playing for the national championship (finishing No. 3 in the standings).
Starting next year, however, another undefeated campaign won't guarantee entry into the new four-team playoff, particularly given a conference lineup of Connecticut, USF, Temple and seven recent Conference USA defectors. And a league championship will only put the Bearcats in contention with the top Mountain West program and others for the so-called Group of Five's premium bowl berth.
Babcock and university president Santa Ono have been aggressively pursuing membership in the ACC, whose presidents received a holiday card from Ono last December and an update on Cincinnati's recently announced $65 million Nippert Stadium renovation the following month. The cozy stadium may finally expand to a 40,000-seat capacity; the school previously spent $115 million over seven years to create its Varsity Village, which consolidated and vastly modernized nearly all its athletics facilities.
Still, a move became far less likely following the ACC's Grant of Rights deal on Monday, which seemingly puts an end to realignment for the foreseeable future.
Tuberville insists he doesn't sweat the program's conference standing. "If I worried about that stuff I wouldn't have enjoyed the Reds games and the circus and all that," he said. "We're excited about -- what do you call it? American Athletic Conference?"
If anything, the fact Babcock managed to land a former SEC head coach just weeks after Louisville and Rutgers served the old Big East's final death knell helped soothe many worried Cincinnati fans. Now, they need only worry about keeping him.
Or do they?
"I've dragged my wife all over this country. She said, 'Listen, if we go, we're not leaving. We're staying,'" said Tuberville. "I committed to her to come here and build this program. If I were to try to leave, I'd probably have to leave without a wife, and I don't want to do that."
Here's hoping Suzanne likes baseball and barbeque.