Saturday, November 15, 2008

Keg of Nails

Last night the UC Bearcats won the Keg of Nails for the first time in five years. The trophy is a replica of a keg used to ship nails. The exchange is believed to have been initiated by fraternity chapters on the UC and University of Louisville campuses, signifying that the winning players in the game were "tough as nails." The evening started mild enough but by the second half rain had started proving that both teams had players as tough as nails.

I went to UC in the early 80’s and the football program was forgettable. I ushered at one game and believe the visiting team beat the hapless Bearcats 50-0. The football program improved while UC was in Conference USA but the real strength of course was the basketball program which helped get the Bearcats into the Big East. All eyes were on the basketball Bearcats under new coach Mick Cronin (Huggins record had gotten the team to the Big East but he was fired before ever playing a game in the new conference). Mark Dantonio was coaching the football Bearcats and got them to International Bowl. However, in a move that upset most Bearcat fans Dantonio left before the bowl game and it became Coach Kelly’s first game as the new head coach for the Bearcats.

Coach Kelly led the football team to its first ranking (25h) last year and a trip to the Papa John’s Bowl. The incredible turn around of the program in just one year fueled the ability of Coach Kelly to schedule a game against the mighty Oklahoma Sooners (who were ranked 4th at the time). The Bearcats lost that game but now are ranked 22nd and are poised to take the lead in the Big East. A victory next week against Pittsburgh will have the Bearcats looking at going to the Orange Bowl.

I’m not a sports expert, just someone who is damn proud of his alma mater! Cincinnati has always had exceptional high school football and mediocre professional football. College football was something your turned to the Ohio State University or Notre Dame if you wanted to follow a team. Not anymore! Even if the Bearcats don’t go to the Orange Bowl, the program has become vibrant and exciting. The Bearcats could easily become the identity for Cincinnati (much as the Buckeyes are for Columbus).

I wrote this piece because when I read the Enquirer the Bearcats rated only the second spot on the front page of sports. Perhaps it is me but the whole tone of the article seemed rather ho-hum. The Bearcats could be going to the Orange Bowl in only their second season of playing the Big East and the Enquirer treated last night’s victory as just another day in the office. The Reds haven’t been anything to right about and the Bengals are on track to produce another record losing season. Cincinnati has something to celebrate in the Bearcats and yet the Enquirer just can’t seem to get excited about.

The talk shows will blab ad infinitum about how Coach Kelly’s call to go for a quarterback sneak rather than punt in the first quarter took the momentum away from the team. Perhaps but as a former St Xavier high school coach used to tell us, “What matters is who has the most points at the end of the game.” Coach Kelly and Bearcats are a reason to take pride in Cincinnati and to finally be able to root for a winning program.

And lest I forget, if you want to really understand the caliber of the players you need not look any further than Mardy Gilyard. I could write about what happened during the University of South Florida game but why not let him say it in his own words?

"I tried to dive hoping the parents around the kids would be like, 'Guys, move,' "

"The parents kind of pulled the 'Ole' move and left the kids right there in the middle," Gilyard continued. "I was stuck in mid-flight. I tried to turn, and it so happened I missed everyone. But I caught the one kid that got out of the way. He moved to the left and that's where my shoulder cracked him right in the face."

Then, in a move that led to national acclaim and inspired an avalanche of e-mails to the Cincinnati athletic office praising Gilyard's reaction, he ripped off his helmet and lifted 7-year-old Garrett Monroe into a giant bear hug.

"As soon as I hit him, I was instantly trying to snatch my helmet off," Gilyard said. If the kid sees you scared, they're automatically going to be scared. So, I said, 'Everything is OK.' He gave me a little smirk, and he slapped me five, and then his dad came over and said, 'Oh my God, are you OK?' He kind of glanced over and started crying. He was choking the life out of me. I said, 'You have to let me go. I have to go. You're OK, right?' I wasn't going to leave until he told me he was OK. They would have just had to send a sub in for me. I had to make sure that kid was OK, because I hit him, you know?"


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