Kelly Might Finally Get Locals Excited About UC Football

We can't speak for Brian Kelly, but we can love his audacity, which is why his first fall practices at the University of Cincinnati have just begun and one already hates to see him go. As UC con

Jerry Dowling

We can't speak for Brian Kelly, but we can love his audacity, which is why his first fall practices at the University of Cincinnati have just begun and one already hates to see him go.

As UC continues a huge athletic facilities upgrade, Kelly is talking the kind of talk that smacks of a duel between his own rising star and a program that makes star coaches but can't keep them.

The record shows that Kelly is the real deal. The record also shows that UC football won't hang on to its first-year coach for very long, especially not if he succeeds.

Mark Dantonio worked an ambitious program at UC, too, but three years and an opening at Michigan State persuaded him that it was time to go. If one is committed to himself as a football coach, it's not good enough to run a BCS program. Most coaches want a BCS program that doesn't take its local rivalry with a MAC school seriously, and maybe it would help to be somewhere that sells out a 70,000-seat stadium just by putting on a football game.

UC football isn't a destination. It's a rite of passage for coaches on the way from nowhere to somewhere. Kelly can protest that remark all he wants — after all, that's his job right now — but until he hangs around for five or six years and wins a bit the realities of his business will speak louder than he can.

And that's pretty loud, because this cat can talk. When he spoke to the crowd at a UC basketball game soon after his hiring last winter, you almost wanted to strap on the pads and go find a sled to hit. He came right in last winter, coached a team he'd never seen to an International Bowl win against Western Michigan, and you loved him already.

Kelly plays high-flying, quick-strike football out of the spread, which helped him to two Division II titles at Grand Valley State, followed by the Mid-America Conference title last season at Central Michigan. He's going to put on a show.

It remains to be seen, of course, if the show will draw flies. Among Kelly's more daring initiatives is the ending of a requirement that fans wishing to buy basketball season tickets also must buy football season tickets.

The football program will stand on its own. If it can.

A cynic might suggest that the separation of football from basketball season tickets is a higher level initiative to unburden the staggering hoop program from the weight of the football team. It's gotten hard enough to fill Fifth Third Arena already.

But the change also points to a unique opportunity for the football operation. Though basketball is where UC traditionally succeeds, it's been a very long time since the football program has been this high and the basketball program has been this low.

Maybe Kelly can be the man who finally taps UC into Cincinnati's rich football heritage and builds a top contender out of it. He's right to argue that if Louisville can build a football contender, the same ought to be possible at Cincinnati. A more similar example to Cincinnati would be Miami, the one in Florida, where a dilapidated college program competing with a pro football team rose to the top with overwhelmingly local talent.

Kids would love playing the college game out of the spread, which is taking over the high school game in parts of America. And the good news is that Kelly comes to a situation in which the Bearcats are competitive already. They might surprise us by making a bid for the Big East title, but they wouldn't surprise us if they win enough for another bowl appearance and knock off a league contender along the way.

The reason is defense, the strong side of the team as practices began. The Bearcats return 14 of their top 19 tacklers from last year's defense, which was more than respectable against Big East competition.

Junior tackle Terrill Byrd made All-Big East last season with three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. At the other defensive end, senior Anthony Hoke is back after making 5.5 sacks and 8.5 takles for loss in 2006.

The linebacking is deep, especially with junior Corey Smith back after missing most of last year to injury. In 2005, Smith was second team All-Big East. Around the rest of the defense, the Bearcats have a bit of experience, a bit of speed and a bit of depth.

A reliable returning defense is nothing less than a Christmas gift for a new coach putting in a new offense, and Kelly's blessings don't end there. Dustin Grutza is back at quarterback after completing 61 percent of his passes last year, and Benjamin Mauk, a transfer from Wake Forest, has the kind of experience to compete for the job.

Greg Moore, last year's top UC rusher, also is back to add a power running punch when Kelly wants it, but some say senior Butler Benton fits the spread attack better. The leading receiver, Dominick Goodman, should produce even more in Kelly's offense.

The offensive line, held over from the drive-blocking Dantonio regime, probably isn't quite what Kelly would like, but he should be able to figure it out.

Listening to Kelly, one starts thinking UC is just a dream away from fitting Nippert Stadium for another 10,000 seats and a couple dozen VIP lounges to maximize revenue. But knowing what we all know about UC football, one starts wondering if Kelly will lick this job or if the job will lick him.

It is much to be hoped, naturally, that Kelly wins, because that means UC's football program is better off even if he doesn't hang around long enough to see it. The process would start with a good football team, and the Bearcats this year certainly should be that, even if it doesn't end with them on top of the Big East.

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