CINCINNATI -- A few minutes after Cincinnati's April 25 spring game, coach
"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
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
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 (
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
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
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.
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
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.