Reversal of Fortune

The future is no longer bleak for Cincinnati football, college or pro

It takes a special human being to be a Cincinnati sports fan. Unless you’re a masochist, the better part of the last two decades has not only been disappointing but also profoundly embarrassing. The demise of hometown hero Pete Rose was just the opening salvo in a decline that is only now beginning to show signs of relief.

Sure, the Cincinnati Bearcats’ and Xavier Musketeers’ basketball teams have been consistent winners over that period, but neither has made it to the Final Four since UC’s improbable run in 1993, and neither has won an NCAA championship since 1962.

Speaking of improbable runs, UC’s football success the last two years seemed about as likely as the ultra-image-conscious Tiger Woods cheating on his Swedish-swimsuit-model wife with a porn star. Now the burning question around town is whether UC can survive the loss of head coach Brian Kelly, whose unique combination of charisma and smarts will be tough to replace.

Among all of this collegiate news is the emergence of a Bengals team suddenly respected for more than a pretty-boy offense. After a 4-11-1 season last year, the Who Deys are in control of the AFC North and have a shot at a first-round playoff bye.

Here to support the argument that each football organization is in great shape for the future are Jason Gargano, who hates the Steelers more than a Michael Bay film, and Danny Cross, whose admiration for Mardy Gilyard goes beyond that which is appropriate.

The Bengals’ future is bright via a young core of defensive talent

Cincinnati is a pro town. Or at least it used to be. It’s disheartening to note that an entire generation of local sports fans has grown up barely knowing what it’s like to taste the playoffs, let alone a serious championship run. Since the Reds won the World Series in 1990, the city’s pro football and baseball teams have each made a single playoff appearance — the Reds in 1995, the Bengals in 2005 — over the last 37 combined seasons.

Step off, Detroit. Cincinnati is where pro sports franchises go to die. Or is it?

Barring a complete collapse down the stretch, the Bengals will win their second AFC North division title in five years, which is the same number over that period as the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And don’t think the Bengals are done yet — the longtime NFL whipping boys are primed to extend this year’s success into the future. Why such enthusiasm for a team whose passing game seems to have more in common with the anemic, Akili Smith-led late-1990s edition than the explosive 2005 team that featured current quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco?

One reason: defense. The Bengals have allowed fewer points than any team in the National Football League. The rapid turnaround is a testament to the organization’s recent draft success and the guidance of second-year Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer, who has brought a physicality and mental toughness not seen in these parts since David Fulcher and Tim Krumrie anchored the defense in the 1980s.

The back-to-back first-round selections of cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph in 2006 and Leon Hall in 2007 have been key to the defense’s success — the pair is on the verge of becoming the best cover tandem in the NFL. Their development has allowed Zimmer to use single coverage on opposing wide receivers, which in turn has opened various scheme options that have given the Bengals a much-improved pass rush and run defense.

Add to that the first-round additions of USC linebackers Keith Rivers (2008) and Rey Maualuga (2009), and the Bengals have in place a solid core of young talent that should continue to blossom. (Imagine what the defense might look like had 2005 first-round pick, defensive end David Pollack, not suffered a freak, career-ending neck injury.)

While the Bengals’ offense often hasn’t been pretty, its strong, ball-control running game — a commitment that coincided with the addition of Cedric Benson last year, and has continued with whomever has run the ball this year — is the perfect complement to its stingy defense. To be fair, could anyone have expected more of an offense sporting a young, revamped line and a quarterback who not only missed the majority of last year but also the entire preseason? (And don’t forget that this year’s first-round pick, behemoth offensive lineman Andre Smith, is just now getting on the field.)

Yes, it seems the Bengals are finally capable of adhering to the philosophy that head coach Marvin Lewis, a defensive guru, hoped to implement when he hit town in 2003.

Yet doubters persist. Last Sunday’s loss at the Minnesota Vikings exacerbated questions about a passing game that has suffered far more than anyone could have predicted following the season-ending injury to the team’s best receiving deep threat, Chris Henry. But a win at the San Diego Chargers this Sunday could give the Bengals the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, which equates to a first-round bye and at least one home game.

The fact that we are even contemplating such things is pretty remarkable for an organization that just a year ago looked as though it was reverting back to its pre-Lewis ineptitude.

The fluky season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos would have demoralized past Bengals teams. But this is not past Bengals teams.

No matter what happens down the stretch and into the playoffs this year, the Bengals — anchored by a stout defense, a burgeoning offensive line, a veteran quarterback and a potent rushing attack — should compete with the AFC’s best for several years to come.

— Jason Gargano

UC football set for long-term success without Brian Kelly

Sometimes a successful young football coach has to look in the mirror and ask himself, “Should I try to make a couple million more dollars a year, resurrect a once-glorious program and become a legend?” There are only two possible answers to this often-exaggerated question: “Yes, of course,” and “No, you are a fool and a coward.” The former normally prevails.

Such is the case of Brian Kelly, he of the two Division II national championships, one MAC championship, two Big East championships and three Big East Coach of the Year awards. He’s off to right the lost ship of Notre Dame, to traverse the rough waters of the conference unaffiliated, to re-inspire the likes of the five-star recruit (and good student, too!). His mission is perilous, fraught with the failures of the recently anointed, but it is gravely important to some of the richest athletic donors in the free world.

Go on, young head coach! The Promised Land awaits your spread offense!

What has been missed among the vast hoopla surrounding Kelly’s departure is the stable state in which the University of Cincinnati football program remains. The six years that Mark Dantonio and Kelly spent resurrecting the Bearcats from the depths of Conference USA were more successful than any fan or athletic director could have dreamed. But those six years occurred, and what’s left is a program primed to remain at its current heights.

Kelly once argued that the University of Cincinnati football coaching job was among the best in the country. He left it for one of the most glamorous jobs in all of sports, certainly one of the handful of positions that he admitted were better than his at UC. But Notre Dame takes coaches from all schools — losing Kelly to South Bend doesn’t make UC the Xavier of college football.

Put aside Nippert Stadium’s limited capacity and its need for money-making luxury boxes and you have nearly all positives regarding UC’s current football state: Playing in an eight-team BCS conference, recruiting in one of the country’s most talented high school football regions supported by a pro-sports town that adores a winner. The university’s recent dedication to upgrade facilities will soon address many of its few current drawbacks.

UC won’t currently be able to intrigue the likes of Boise State’s Chris Peterson or TCU’s Gary Patterson. Houston’s Kevin Sumlin already turned down an interview for the UC job. These coaches have already built similarly successful programs in places far, far away from the Midwest, so it shouldn’t be viewed as a slight to the reigning two-time Big East champions. It’s more like UC has just gotten to the level of these schools, which is actually an accomplishment in itself.

But what the UC football program lacks in prestige and history it makes up for in returning talent. It’s not often that a new coach inherits a team expected to compete for a conference championship during his first season. But the fact that both Dantonio and Kelly left the program much better than they inherited it has put UC in the best position possible, considering the circumstances.

The Bearcats have a dynamic and experienced young quarterback heading into spring practice with arguably the best wide-receiving corps in the league. Zach Collaros’ ridiculous play in Tony Pike’s absence forced Kelly to consider benching a Heisman Trophy candidate. The emergence of Armon Binns and the continued growth of D.J. Woods, along with the eligibility of Southern Cal transfer Vidal Hazelton, will give the next offensive coordinator more weapons than any of his league rivals.

And promising running back Isiah Pead will be a junior next year.

Athletic Director Mike Thomas has a proven track record of hiring the right coach from the upper-ranks of the non-BCS affiliated. The team’s current talent and the school’s dedication to upgrading football facilities will ensure that Thomas doesn’t have to settle for a Kragthorpian hire who wrecks the newly cool Bearcat football program. [UPDATE: Central Michigan's Butch Jones was announced as UC's new head coach on Dec. 16.]

UC’s next coach will succeed immediately, and the continued support of the university and the city will ensure that the Bearcats remain on par with Pitt and West Virginia as the Big East’s best football programs for years to come.

— Danny Cross

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