The Big East might become a big deal, but big change is the big deal at the University of Cincinnati's athletic department for now. Whether or not one agrees with President Nancy Zimpher's initiatives, all must agree the big changes constitute a big gamble.
Zimpher hired a new athletic director last month, bringing in Mike Thomas from the University of Akron, where he brought the athletic department's academic standing within the Mid-American Conference from bottom to top in five years as the AD. Attempting to enhance the university's profile and prestige in the past two years, Zimpher already has removed basketball coach Bob Huggins and replaced retiring Athletic Director Bob Goin with a proven performer on the academic end.
It remains in question how the athletic program will fare, particularly the two most followed sports, football and men's basketball. But a passage of sorts awaits Saturday.
The football team is headed to Tampa for a critical game against suddenly respected South Florida. And the men's basketball team under interim coach Andy Kennedy opens its season on campus against Murray State, to be followed by two more home games within the week against Illinois State and Holy Cross. The stakes for both programs are substantial.
On the football side, the Bearcats are unfathomably young, they've endured their share of growing pains in their first year of the Big East and they've still got a chance to cop a winning season and bowl eligibility.
Both achievements would entail a winning season in the Big East. Not bad at all for a football team with 40, yes, 40 freshmen.
The Bearcats might thank emergency legislation passed this spring allowing one win against a Division I-AA team to count for bowl eligibility, because one of their wins came against Western Carolina. But they also have work to do, needing to win their final two games. Saturday's outing is a test, for South Florida is a title contender with a 3-1 conference record, and UC ends the season a week later against Rutgers, a 6-4 operation with this week off to prepare.
The nation's true football freaks, who've made prime-time televised football a seven-day possibility, saw the Bearcats taken completely apart Nov. 9 by West Virginia, which beat them 38-0 at Nippert Stadium. Very difficult to watch. West Virginia rushed for 297 yards compared with 62 for the Bearcats. Complete slaughter.
The Bearcats have taken a few other whippings, too. In retrospect, their 42-24 loss Penn State on Sept. 10 is respectable. Penn State has since climbed to fifth in the national rankings. The Bearcats took a 46-22 drubbing from Louisville, which is listed in the major polls and the Bowl Championship Series rankings. West Virginia is 13th in the polls with America's fourth-ranked defense. Just about anyone could have lost a couple of those three games, if not all of them.
But only a team with 40 freshmen could be excused for a 44-16 pounding from Miami or a 38-20 loss that began resuscitating Dave Wannstedt's first year at Pittsburgh. You knew this year would be painful when the roster showed 11 seniors, and it has been.
What could limit a football team more than having only 11 seniors? That's barely enough to stock one platoon. Throw in 23 juniors, and you're forced to load your two-deep with sophomores even if your juniors and seniors are your best players. And evidently they aren't, in the judgment of UC football coach Mark Dantonio.
So a bowl game this year is a long shot. But if the Bearcats can pull it off and take a few extra weeks of practice from the invitation, they could come back charging next season. They'll lose only seven seniors from their two-deep, and the 37 other guys coming back will be that much better practiced.
Much gloom and doom is spoken today about the men's basketball side, where no Huggins suggests no future. Whoever ends up running the basketball team, a rebuilding process is almost guaranteed because the Bearcats basically swore off recruiting this fall. The recruiting coordinator, Kennedy, has been too busy and he couldn't have told the recruits anything firm anyway.
The Bearcats aren't showing up in anyone's preseason rankings. UC didn't draw a single vote in the coaches poll and attracted only two votes in the media poll. But we can hope for a couple occurrences.
First, that seniors Eric Hicks, Jihad Muhammad, James White, Armein Kirkland and Chadd Moore will carry on forcefully and in good health. To hear the polls, a team with five returning seniors can't win without a Hall of Fame coach. Which is nuts.
This team will be a lot better than people think. Watch out for Devin Downey, the 5-foot-10 freshman from Chester, S.C., who made all-state three straight years and averaged 37 points in high school last season.
Second, hope that UC gives Kennedy a true shot and that Kennedy gives the university what it wants. Thomas made no commitment either way about Kennedy's status when he accepted the job, not even to say, "Boo." Interim or not, a fellow who does the job is worthy of it. But that's never all there is to it.
More often than not, a new AD will try to dazzle with the selection of a basketball coach, going for the hot assistant from the big-time program, the up-and-coming charismatic leader of a winning mid-major or the established winner who has worn out his welcome elsewhere. The interim former assistant from the old regime is too low key.
Thomas knows he needs to get it right, because no figure in this athletic department matters more than the men's basketball coach. Not to dis Huggins, but Thomas needs to make UC fans forget about him as much as he can. And the fans will lose their outrage about Huggins' ouster the second UC makes a nice run in the NCAA Tournament.
What if this is the year that happens and Andy Kennedy, the Huggins guy, is the guy who does it? And then he doesn't get the job? That's not going to make the fans forget Huggins.