After this month’s NFL Draft, the University of Cincinnati will officially say goodbye to Connor Barwin, a two-sport athlete whose arrival and four-year career spanned the basketball team’s difficult rebuilding process and the unlikely resurgence of the school’s football program. Barwin, who went from plus-type tight end to NFL-talent defensive end during the course of a year, is the face of UC’s best-ever draft class and a model of what Brian Kelly hopes to produce year-in and year-out.
While some professional team will surely benefit from his presence, there will be a void left on UC’s campus, where he did whatever he could to help the school and its fans, including making fun of Xavier for not having a football team.
When asked about what his time attending UC was like, Barwin sums it up succinctly.
“It’s been a great experience,” he says. “The program grew in those four years. The whole university, the backing that they had behind football grew. All that combined to allow us to gradually have success during that period and to finish it off with a Big East Championship and a BCS Bowl Game.”
Given the stormy relationships Cincinnati has recently had with once-beloved sports figures, Barwin is a breath of fresh air. When you hear him talk about his time in the city, a sincere sense of appreciation is evident.
“It’s a blessing,” he says. “I’m thankful that I came to UC in 2005 and I was here for that time period. You feel good about yourself that you were a part of that — you weren’t just here when it happened. Me and the rest of my senior class had a big part in the process that UC has gone through in four years.”
Hailing from Hazel Park, Mich., Barwin was under-recruited out of high school. After looking at several MAC schools, the choice of schools to attend was narrowed down to Bowling Green and UC. Barwin chose to play for then-UC coach Mark Dantonio, whose recruits made up the core that Kelly led to two straight 10-win seasons.
After switching from tight end to defensive end and racking up an impressive 11 sacks during his senior year, Barwin’s draft stock began to climb. An impressive performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February furthered his stock, which was aided by months of rigorous training.
Barwin says that after the training and the four grueling days at the combine he had “the best night of sleep” he’d had in a long time.
The Bearcats sent six players to the NFL combine, which ranked with the likes of Southern Cal and LSU for the most players in attendance from any one school. The last few years have produced few UC players at the combine, with the last notable Bearcat NFL regular being Trent Cole, who graduated four years ago. Barwin doesn’t think there will be a similar wait for more UC players to make their mark in the NFL.
The past two years alone represent a sizable change in stature for the program. It’s amazing to win five games during your freshman season and three years later have accomplished enough to be able to say with a straight face, as Barwin does, “I am confident that UC will be competing for Big East Championships year-in and year-out from here on out.”
Barwin makes an interesting point when speaking about the Bearcats’ 2005 basketball season. Even with his NFL hopes nearly secured, he’s still worked up about that year’s team being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
“We should have went to the tournament that year,” he says. “It would’ve been great to look back at my UC career and say I went to the NCAA Tournament and a BCS Bowl Game, but it’s still been an awesome four years.”
Even though he played basketball in high school, Barwin wouldn’t have played hoops at UC had it not been for injuries and the fallout of Bob Huggins’ firing. Describing how he ended up on the hardwood, Barwin says, “AK (Andy Kennedy) asked Mark Dantonio who he knew that could play. Dantonio had seen me play when he recruited me, and three days later I was playing against Syracuse.”
Even though Barwin gave up a lot of height to many of the players he battled against on the court, he went hard for rebounds and played with the same tenacity he’s known for on the football field.
When asked what he’ll miss most about the UC campus, Barwin says he doesn’t want to sound cliche but that he’ll miss his teammates.
“The senior class I came in with, not very many people transferred or left,” he says. “It’s a diverse group of us, but we’ve gotten close over the four years and I’ll miss hanging out with them. Looking back on it, with what happened to me here I never would’ve wanted to go anywhere else in the country. I’m so blessed and happy that I ended up in Cincinnati and the way everything has worked out.”
To hear this from an athlete who’s represented the city the way he has almost doesn’t seem real. The odds of the Bengals selecting Barwin in the draft aren’t very high, but it would certainly benefit this city to keep Barwin around.
Projected to be drafted sometime in the second round, he’ll watch the April 25 draft with his family at his apartment in Mason. Hopefully, Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis make a gutsy move and keeps this local favorite in Cincinnati for a while longer. ©