Cincinnati Rallies to Keep Brian Kelly
MONTGOMERY, Ohio -- From the original Montgomery Inn, it is the home of the world's greatest ribs - I plan on enjoying some of those ribs after the show tonight, but we are not here to talk about the great cuisine at the original Montgomery Inn. We are here to talk about the undefeated, fifth-rated UC Bearcats with head coach Brian Kelly. Nine and oh after last week's unbelievable ...
Dan Hoard's opening statement from inside the Montgomery Inn lounge Thursday night is greeted with thunderous applause from the UC fans, many who made their reservations three weeks ago to guarantee a table to sit and watch a football coach do a radio show.
The fire marshal would probably prefer only 150 folks in the lounge, but what's the harm in squeezing in another 50 or so on this night? Every table, seat, bar stool and nook and cranny, for that matter, is occupied as the Bearcats' faithful, nearly all decked out in red or black UC gear, hangs on Kelly's every word -- almost as intently as they grip those Montgomery Inn world's greatest ribs.
Kelly recaps last week's win against UConn and previews the next night's game with West Virginia, a game Cincinnati wins 24-21 to become the first team in school history to start 10-0. During commercial breaks, Kelly graciously signs autographs and carries on small talk with fans.
The show nears the midway point and there's still the question -- the humongous elephant in the room that stretches as high as Touchdown Jesus -- that nobody wants to ask, but every single person wants, no make that has, to know the answer.
"Let's go to Ken who's on his cell," Hoard said. "Ken you're on 700 WLW."
"Hey coach," says Ken, "I came in a little late so I'm not sure if this question was asked or not. Can you talk a little bit about Notre Dame?"
The sudden silence is deafening.
"No, I really," Kelly starts off. "To be quite honest with you, uh, that is something that for some reason everybody likes to talk about. I like to talk about Cincinnati football. So, if you want to talk about Cincinnati football, I'd be happy to entertain that."
Ken isn't satisfied. "So no one from Notre Dame has approached you then?" he asks.
"Like I said, I want to talk about Cincinnati football," Kelly said. "So, if it has something to do with Cincinnati football, I'd be happy to talk about it."
The lounge is filled with nervous applause.
The next call is from Patrick in Columbus. "Also we want to say something from Columbus," Patrick says. "We hope you stay at Cincinnati."
"Thank you. I hope they renew my contract after this year," Kelly said jokingly. "Again we're building something here that's pretty special. My wife and I, Paqui, really love it here."
Much louder confident applause from the crowd this time. But the question still remains: what will Kelly do if Notre Dame or another college football corporation, that can buy and sell Cincinnati, comes calling with a blank check?
All indications are that the 47-year old Kelly genuinely loves Cincinnati. He isn't, however, quite as fond of the never-ending speculation that he's leaving for every bigger profile, higher paying program on the planet.
"Why doesn't everyone question if Bob Stoops will stay at his job?" Kelly told FanHouse shortly after Thursday's radio show ended. "Why is Cincinnati not a destination job? How can you say this is not a destination job? You don't know how good a job Cincinnati is. You can build something that no one has built here."
Cincinnati senior wide receiver Mardy Gilyard has seen the building. He remembers the pain he felt when he heard Kelly was being targeted by the big boys the past couple of years.
"He showed me his character when he was offered all those big jobs, Tennessee and Michigan at the time," Gilyard said. "I asked him personally, 'Coach, you know, are you leaving? What's going on?'
"He looked at me in my face and said 'are you kidding me?' He's like 'Mardy, I'm staying. You don't have to worry about anything. I'm here, I'm not going anywhere.' "
But, then again, Gilyard had heard the same nonsense from former UC coach Mark Dantonio, who bolted for Michigan State less than 48 hours after UC's 2006 regular season finale. Dantonio didn't even stick around to coach the bowl game that year.
"I didn't take [what Kelly said] seriously to be honest because the same thing was told to us by coach Dantonio," Gilyard said. "He told all of us, he wasn't going anywhere and then he turned around and left. Coach Kelly said that [and] we were like, 'we've been there, done that.' And he came in front of the team: 'I'm telling you guys, I'm not going anywhere.'
"At the time, I was like this man's for real. It shows he bleeds red and black. We thanked him for staying. We needed that structure in our life. We needed that stability as a team.
"Because we put so much into our former coach and when he left, the whole team was bummed and heartbroken. We also understand it's a business and at the end of the day, coach has to look out for his family. But I think his family got a whole lot bigger with his contract extension with the 100 of us [players]."
Kelly's new five-year contract took effect on Jan. 1, but it wasn't signed until June 18. He will earn $1.337 million this year, not including incentives. That's not exactly chump change, yet Kelly's salary ranks only fourth among the Big East's eight coaches and he's closing in on a second consecutive league title.
Kelly already has reached incentives this season worth $134,000 and will earn an additional $150,000 if the Bearcats win the Big East again and earn another BCS bowl bid. Yet, all of the creative incentives, including $25,000 for a Top 25 finish and $10,000 for each victory against a Top 25 ranked opponent, pale in comparison to the most important item in his contract.
8. PRACTICE FIELDS
The University agrees to use its best efforts to build or acquire two (2) practice fields on campus as soon as possible and an indoor facility, which shall be understood to include a bubble over Nippert Stadium or some other on campus facility, as soon as possible. The University further agrees that should the Program participate in a BCS bowl game before the indoor practice facility becomes available, the University shall obtain indoor practice space at an offsite location to be selected by Director of Athletics in consultation with Coach.
The Cincinnati Enquirer recently reported that UC has "had a difficult time raising the $13.5 million to $15 million needed for the practice fields." And then there's the additional challenge of raising $50 million to $100 million necessary for a planned renovation to 35,000 seat Nippert Stadium, the nation's third-smallest BCS stadium.
"There's an appetite for premium seating," Kelly said. "We've done a survey amongst our fans and it's come back to show club seating, luxury boxes, things of that nature are very, very important to moving our program forward because we lack a consistent revenue stream at 35,000 [seats].
"It will be addressed and you'll see some changes to Nippert Stadium, but it won't change much where you will add [20,000] to 30,000 seats. A small edition of seating, but a lot of those would be premium seating."
If they build it, will he stay? Perhaps. But if they don't, Kelly can opt out of his contract and avoid paying the buyout, which is $1 million if he leaves before Jan. 15, 2010. Kelly's buyout decreases by $250,000 each year.
Will Schroder, a 23-year old Cincinnati native, sits at the bar listening to Kelly's radio show. He's confident Kelly won't leave.
"Kelly won't want that pressure of Notre Dame," Schroder said. "There's not as much pressure here and it's easier to get to a BCS bowl in the Big East. But he is a hot commodity."
Bob and Judy Wilson are splitting some dessert. They listened intently to Kelly's response about Notre Dame. Judy, 65, is a Cincinnati graduate, while her 72-year old husband Bob is a Michigan graduate that long ago was converted to a Bearcats fan. They hope Kelly stays, but still worry.
"You can be a big fish here, but I just don't know how much they can pay," Bob Wilson said. "They can build practice fields and everything. Whether that's enough, who knows?"
Financially, Cincinnati can't compete with Notre Dame. Heck, they can't even keep up with the rest of the BCS. The Bearcats have the second-lowest athletic department budget in the Big East and rank No. 63 out of 66 BCS schools. With the current economic climate, this isn't exactly the easiest time to raise several million dollars.
But Kelly, along with Nick Lachey (the former Mr. Jessica Simpson), do what they can. During UC's games, they show videos of Kelly and Lachey asking fans to support the program and donate toward the facility upgrades.
At the Montgomery Inn, they're also pitching in. The restaurant is raising money by selling red towels -- two for $5 -- that say "Cincy Committed to Kelly." Selling red towels? Some talking heads make it sound like Cincinnati should just start waving a white towel.
Last week, Mel Kiper Jr. reported Kelly was a done deal at Notre Dame once Charlie Weis was fired -- and that was before the Irish lost to Pittsburgh. Then Saturday, the way Lee Corso touted Kelly, an Irish Catholic by the way, for the Notre Dame job, you would think Corso's eligible for a referral bonus.
Cincinnati athletic director Mike Thomas hears all the noise. He's also realistic enough to know that Kelly's 32-6 record at UC will continue to draw plenty of attention from other schools with more money and resources.
"People have already showed interest in the past, I think that's a reflection of the success that we've had," Thomas said. "It's certainly better than the alternative. I'd rather have someone want my coach because we're winning than the alternative. It's the nature of the business. It falls under the job description."
Cincinnati sophomore quarterback Zach Collaros knows first-hand the job Kelly has done. Collaros went from being a backup to setting the Big East single-game total offense record in only his third career start in Kelly's offense.
"Why wouldn't people want him as a coach?" Collaros said. "Especially after the job he's done here."
Kelly's hour-long radio show ends and the restaurant quickly empties. Kelly, though, remains to accomodate the numerous autograph and photo requests.
A reporter asks Kelly again about Cincinnati.
"We're doing something here that's never been done before," Kelly said. "It's not how Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes or Bobby Bowden did it before you. You don't hear that."
Kelly sits down at a table with friends and family, including his brother Paul, who, listeners to the Brian Kelly radio show learned, got engaged to his fiance Karen earlier in the day. Kelly glances at one of the televisions and notices the Thursday night TV game between Rutgers and South Florida has reached halftime.
Kelly then walks up to one of the televisions over the bar to watch an interview he did earlier that day with ESPN's Rece Davis. Once the interview concludes, the remaining fans applaud Kelly once last time and he heads out of the restaurant.
Like everyone inside the restaurant, manager Rick Knapp is a big Kelly fan. He's asked if the original Montgomery Inn will host the Brian Kelly radio show next season.
"We very much hope so," Knapp said. "But I don't think the show will be able to commute from South Bend."