As the ball arced toward the sideline and the clock ticked down, college football seemed to hold its collective breath.
It was Dec. 5, 2009. Colt McCoy, the Texas quarterback, had thrown the ball away under duress with his team in field goal range and trailing by two points in the Big 12 championship game. Inside Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the clock showed all zeroes, apparently giving Nebraska the victory, Texas its first loss and undefeated Cincinnati, of all teams, a spot in the BCS title game, against Alabama.
But much to the chagrin of the Bearcats, video review showed that the ball hit a railing with a second to play. That gave the Longhorns enough time to kick a field goal that sent them to the national title game, while Cincinnati settled for the Sugar Bowl.
Still, despite being walloped by Florida and Tim Tebow in that game, Cincinnati’s future seemed bright.
Now, three years later, the Bearcats are faced with far murkier prospects. Brian Kelly, who coached Cincinnati to the cusp of that BCS title game, is going there with Notre Dame instead. His replacement, Butch Jones, who won 19 games over the past two seasons, left this month for Tennessee.
Meanwhile, the Big East has fallen into tatters around Cincinnati, arguably the conference’s best football program over the past decade. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville are all bound for the ACC, Rutgers is off to the Big Ten and West Virginia is playing in the Big 12. Seven Catholic programs have broken away to form a basketball league. Universities such as Navy, Memphis and Tulane have been recruited to take their place, while the new, inchoate conglomeration may not be able to keep Boise State, its highest-profile addition. The Broncos have committed to join the Big East but might stay in the Mountain West, in essence stamping it as the better conference.
“It’s very unsettling to see it happen,” said Mike Thomas, who was Cincinnati’s athletics director from 2005 to 2011 and is now in the same position at Illinois. “It’s painful. I don’t know what will happen going forward.”
The only certainty around the Cincinnati program is that the Bearcats will play Duke tonight in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. Steve Stripling, the defensive line coach, will man the sideline for one game before Tommy Tuberville takes over. Tuberville, who was 7-5 with Texas Tech this season, was a bit of a surprise hire, although his relationship with Whit Babcock, Cincinnati’s athletics director, dates to their time at Auburn, where Tuberville was the coach and Babcock the assistant athletics director.
The hope in Cincinnati is that Tuberville not only will keep the program at a high level but also that, at age 58, he is not looking to use the job as a rung in the head coach ladder — even though he left Texas Tech after three seasons. Since 2006, the Bearcats have seen Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Kelly (Notre Dame) and Jones leave for bigger jobs.
Recruiting top talent has been difficult since Kelly left. The conference realignment could make that practice even more challenging. Tuberville has gone through it before, when Texas Tech watched recently as other conferences lured Big 12 teams away.
“The uncertainty was unbearable on fans and administrators,” he said. “But, you know what? It doesn’t really bother coaches and players.”
The Bearcats were very interested in moving to the ACC, going so far as to ask Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose sister works at Cincinnati, to make some calls on its behalf, according to emails obtained by The Cincinnati Enquirer. Meyer did not, and the ACC eventually turned Cincinnati down.
“Conference realignment is a story that is still being told,” Babcock said in a recent statement. “Like our fans, students, donors and alumni, I will be glad when all of this is over. I cannot tell you how, when or where it will end, but I can tell you that UC is positively committed to competing at the highest level. I do not know the time frame for the endgame of all of this. We will not have the answers overnight.”
The Bearcats also are competing for recruits with facilities that can seem outdated. Nippert Stadium, completed in 1924, is the third-oldest stadium in use among FBS schools — only Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium and Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium are older. Its capacity is just over 35,000, meaning Jones will coach home games in front of roughly three times as many fans in Tennessee.
Last week Cincinnati announced a proposal to expand and modernize Nippert Stadium. Suites and club seats would be added, along with other amenities. But no timetable on construction had been set. The university estimates the project will cost $60 million to $70 million, and plans to pay for it with private donations and without public money. Whether that much money can be raised with the football program in such flux is an open question.
For now, all the Bearcats can do is make themselves as attractive as possible until the next big conference suitor comes along.
“We play with class, we play hard, and we’re going to have a lot of success,” Tuberville said when he was hired. “And that anybody would be proud to have the University of Cincinnati in whatever conference is out there.”