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Archive for Friday, October 12, 2007

Cincy has new outlook

October 12, 2007

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— For coach Brian Kelly's first home game, the University of Cincinnati couldn't even fill its small football stadium. Two months later, the school is talking about adding thousands of seats.

Six wins have changed nearly every conversation on campus.

The Bearcats' best start since 1954 has boosted them to No. 15 in the national poll and boosted their profile faster than anyone expected when Kelly was hired last December. He arrived with promises of eventually turning Cincinnati into a prominent program.

Not even his boss expected it to happen so fast.

"I was very optimistic and felt at some point we would get here," athletic director Mike Thomas said in an interview this week. "Has it happened a little quicker than I envisioned? I'd be lying if I said 'Yeah, this is how quickly I thought it would happen.'

"To me, it's ahead of schedule. But he's a very impatient person, just like I'm a very impatient person."

Kelly had a whole lot of history working against him when he showed up on campus for the first time.

When the Bearcats were welcomed into the Big East, their football program was an afterthought. The basketball program's success under former coach Bob Huggins made them an attractive addition.

Huggins was the face of Cincinnati athletics, running the team that drove the program. His forced departure left a void for the last two years. The Bearcats didn't get votes in the polls - basketball or football.

So, when football coach Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State after the regular season last year, the school set out to find not just another coach, but a salesman for a program that couldn't even come close to filling its 35,000-seat stadium for most games.

"I felt when we went into that process that not only did we need a football coach who could get the job done on the field, but we needed someone that in the community could really be a face for this program," Thomas said.

Kelly immediately talked of championships and national rankings. He showed up at halftime of a Bearcats basketball game and promised big things ahead.

The community listened. And ignored.

The Bearcats drew only 20,223 for a season-opening victory over Southeast Missouri State on Aug. 30. For the players, the half-empty stadium felt all too familiar.

Six weeks later, it's an entirely different place. The Bearcats have sold out the rest of their home games and are already taking ticket orders for next season. Thomas is looking into expanding Nippert Stadium to accommodate the overnight growth in ticket demand.

"My freshman year, I knew it wasn't the true college football atmosphere," senior safety Haruki Nakamura said. "It's a complete turnaround. Now we've got guys camping out for tickets. Now the games are sold out. They're going to have to expand. I've never seen anything like it.

"The thing is, the last couple years we didn't give fans quite what they wanted. We weren't winning consistently."

The school is starting to lay a foundation for years to come.

Kelly would like to add a practice field - currently, the Bearcats work out in Nippert Stadium - and upgrade some of the other facilities.

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