- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

From time to time, the players in Cincinnati’s suddenly resurgent football program run afoul of the man whose system helped them reach a BCS game despite utilizing five quarterbacks a year ago.

And in those cases, Brian Kelly often deploys the best retort in his arsenal.

“He reminds from time to time he has won two national championships,” senior safety Aaron Webster said.

Sure, those were at Division II Grand Valley State, but they are glittery highlights on a resume that gets better by the season - especially after Kelly guided the Bearcats to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in the history of a program that dates to 1885.

In the wide-open Big East, that constitutes a potential juggernaut. And it’s notable that Cincinnati could lose 10 starters off its defense from last year’s Orange Bowl team and yet still be considered a conference title contender when its season begins Monday at Rutgers.

“You’ve got to get your players to believe you can win,” Kelly said. “Then you have to go do it.”

Any tricks to make it happen?

“We have Kool-Aid,” Kelly joked.

It’s with an acerbic wit, a potent offense and extensive preparation that Kelly has climbed through coaching in a less-conventional way this decade. His final Grand Valley State teams dominated, going 41-2 from 2001 to 2003. That led to a rebuilding gig at Central Michigan, the success of which caught the attention of Cincinnati when Mark Dantonio bolted for Michigan State.

And now he has further energized the Bearcats, who are a mere five years removed from a steady if uninspiring place near the top of Conference USA. Winning - and winning big - has suddenly granted Cincinnati football a chic place at a school where basketball traditionally towers over other sports and in a town where the Reds and Bengals are typically mediocre at best.

“Cincinnati was always a place where you were going to come and get 20,000 a game and the crowd’s going to be here and there,” quarterback Tony Pike said. “Growing up, I can remember coming to games, and I’d come to West Virginia games and there would be more West Virginia fans than UC. Just to see how that’s changed, there’s no way you could have envisioned it.”

For certain, Dantonio started the turnaround. But even his peak was a 7-5 record in 2006, after which he left for a bigger job. After all, Cincinnati has employed 12 coaches since Joe Paterno took over at Penn State in 1966. Historically, it’s best to move on by choice before being asked to do so.

Yet things could be different with Kelly. Pike praised his coach’s ability to go into each meeting room and understand all that is going on, precisely echoing his position coach. And little demonstrates his creative improvisational skills than his slick handling of last year’s quarterback roulette on the way to Cincinnati’s first New Year’s Day date since 1951.

“He’s the tool man,” Webster said. “Anything you ask him about, he has an answer for. He’s pretty much right on everything.”

But there’s also some moxie involved, too, and Kelly possesses plenty of that. And it could be enough to keep Cincinnati near the top of the Big East for some time.

Kelly’s presence is a vital component, and he is convinced he can continue winning even if the Bearcats recruit almost exclusively in their metropolitan area.

“Ohio State can come into Cincinnati and they can take their 25 if they had 25 to give, and there would still be enough players in that area for me to win a Big East championship,” Kelly said. “So when people ask you about ‘What’s the deal, why stay at Cincinnati?’ Well, the recruiting base is outstanding, and at the end of the day, this is still about having good players.”

Even with a wiped out defense, the Bearcats still possess talent. And it’s not like the rest of the Big East doesn’t have questions. West Virginia lost Pat White. LeSean McCoy left Pittsburgh early for the NFL. Mike Teel and Kenny Britt departed Rutgers.

Connecticut needs a new workhorse back to replace Donald Brown. South Florida’s recent history of late-season fades makes them a tenuous title choice. And so the pairing of Cincinnati and Kelly could thrive and thrive big again this fall - and perhaps even longer.

“In years past, we’ve been a team that might show up in the Top 25 but the next year they’d be nowhere close,” Pike said. “I think we’re building a program that every year is going to contend to be in the top 25 and to be a team that’s hopefully going to be at the top of the Big East each year.”

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