Deep in preparation for a Big East mega-game Thursday at No. 21 South Florida, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly took a day off to visit ESPN's corporate monolith last Friday. It was a match made in media heaven, Kelly being a Worldwide Co-Leader in the ways of corporate and self-promotion.
"A four-hour infomercial'' for the Bearcats, Kelly called his day in Bristol, which he spent doing live radio and taped TV spots. Some coaches couldn't be bothered. Some won't be asked. ESPN has tried for a year to get Texas Tech's Mike Leach to make the pilgrimage. "He won't do it,'' Kelly said. "He doesn't have to do it, in his mind.''
Brian Kelly would do it. He had a booster arrange a private jet, which was fine. But Kelly would have walked to Connecticut. He'd have been on the side of I-95 with a backpack, a cardboard sign and his thumb.
Kelly is a very good coach, who in two-plus seasons has taken the Bearcats from the middle of the middling Big East to the top of the charts. He's a full-fledged offensive guru, who has what he calls "a library'' of schemes and plays, some of which were conceived on cocktail napkins.
The Bearcats are the Fourth of July every week: four wide receivers, five wides, Wildcat formations, fourth-and-go-for-it. The whole Wide Open catalog. They're explosive enough that Kelly said Tuesday he has to figure a way to slow them down. His offense scores too quickly: forty-two points a game, in 24 minutes. It leaves his defense with a permanent case of tongues-hanging-out.
But what Kelly does as well as anything is talk. He's full-blown Irish. He doesn't kiss the Blarney Stone. He lives with it. And we mean that in the nicest of ways.
Seemingly by the force of his personality, Kelly has made college football cool in a pro football city. He is not yet regal enough to forsake the local high school stag nights. In 2008, he attended more than 70 Cincinnati-area functions, speaking to civic clubs and corporate honchos. Kelly eats so much rubber chicken, he bounces. Recently, he and an assistant coach made the rounds of area high school football games -- in a helicopter.
Cincinnati is a provincial place that can take a while to warm to outsiders. Once you have the city's heart, though, it's yours. This happened with former UC basketball coach Bob Huggins, who still walks on water in some local precincts. It's occurring now with Kelly.
He's winning hearts and minds locally and around the region. He's getting into some living rooms previously reserved for Ohio State. The reach continues to extend, which is why Kelly called the ESPN visit a "no brainer for the University of Cincinnati.'' Kelly labeled his Top 10 Bearcats "the flavor of the week'' in college football. "We're a cute story now,'' he said. "We had a chance to put our brand out there.''
That would be Kelly's brand. The Bearcats do have their share of cute stories. Senior wideout Mardy Gilyard has seven touchdowns and is averaging 103 receiving yards a game. Two years ago, he was living in his car, having lost his scholarship. Compared to sleeping in a Pontiac Grand Am, playing football is fantasy land.
The senior quarterback, Tony Pike, is a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate who has thrown 13 touchdown passes. In four of Cincinnati's five games, he has passed for at least 300 yards. The fifth, a 70-3 rout of Southeast Missouri, Pike played only the first half. If you want to find Pike on a Friday night before a home game, try his apartment, above the garage at his parents' house, in the blue-collar suburb of Reading. Or a local high school game.ARMSTRONG: Pike's journey from perennial backup to Heisman contender
The defense is a good story, even if the group photo belongs on a milk carton. Never has a unit spent so much time on the field and been so invisible. That's what happens when the offense is operating like a Pike-to-Gilyard, 2-by-400 relay team. "We know people want to see people score,'' said defensive lineman Ricardo Mathews. "Every little kid wants to be a wide receiver growing up.''
Mathews calls UC's defense "The Dark Side.''
"We do the dirty work,'' Mathews said. "You've got to have something to be on The Dark Side, you know what I mean?'' Gilyard said the biggest threat to the Bearcats' offense has been the Bearcats' defense. "We've got to be fine with what we do. They know us, and they're good.''
The defense leads the country in sacks, tackles for loss and shoulder boulders. The unit even feels slighted by its head coach. "I spend more time talking about the offense. I let (the defense) take it any way they want,'' Kelly said. "They take it as, 'Coach Kelly must not have a great feeling about us.' Which is absolutely not the case, but if that's the way they feel, and it provides them an opportunity to play harder, that's good.''
A good thing about college football is it allows for a cute story or two, every year. Some years, it looks like Utah or BYU. Others, it comes dressed as Virginia Tech or even South Florida, which rose as high as No. 2 two years ago. This year, it could be the 5-0 Bearcats, led by a coach who talks a good game. And plays a better one.