I rarely write about losses. Why? Because I hate losing and rarely have anything helpful to say – especially in the immediate aftermath of a tough loss. In my experience, outrage is contagious, even seductive, and it’s easy for me to be swept away in rivers of unreasoned negativity. If anything, I want to be helpful to the program.
I’ve always been more booster than blogger. I love the University of Cincinnati and UC’s student athletes. I am impressed by the workloads they juggle (as teenagers), and the emotional challenges that accompany competing in front of tens of thousands of fans. I also appreciate their families, who often cheer from thousands of miles away having entrusted their children to UC’s coaching staff and the UC community.
A. The USF Meltdown and Contagious Outrage
That said, I’ll wade into the USF loss on Saturday night – undoubtedly one of the tougher defeats in recent memory. Like the Houston game, UC competed for three quarters until turnovers gave way to a lopsided scoreboard favoring USF 45-20. What happened? I’m sure you have drawn your conclusions by now, but QB play is not the only issue. It’s simplistic to suggest that teams win or lose because of one position. When a visiting team hangs 45 points on your scoreboard, it’s a team loss.
No doubt turnovers hurt us. The defense gave up 454 yards. USF’s quarterback was slippery. Saturday was a mess, of the hot variety. But the outrage hurled at RS Freshman Ross Trail was over the top, and silly.
If any kid is deserving of the fan bases’ early support, it’s Ross Trail. Trail originally committed to play for Charlie Strong at U of L. After Strong left for Texas, Trail reopened his recruitment. From Wynne, Arkansas, if the Razorbacks didn’t already have two QB commits in his recruiting class, the four star QB probably would have ended up playing in the SEC. And yet, while wearing a UC uniform on Nippert’s hallowed turf, he was showered with boos for making mistakes. Not a good look for the UC community.
UC is already playing with half a recruiting deck after being left out of the last round of realignment. We are not recruiting athletes to play in the Big East with an automatic BCS bid anymore. It’s not 2011. Can we honestly expect any recruit to move a thousand miles from home to play big games in front of a fan base that savages its young players? How well does that “living room” pitch sell?
“Hi, I’m Tommy Tuberville and I want to convince you, Mr. and Mrs. [Insert Name], that your Highly-Recruited-4-Star-Son should leave all that is familiar to him, and come play in big games in front of a home crowd that eats its own.”
Does Gunner give us a better chance of winning games this season? Maybe? Does piling on a RS Freshman’s worst night of football help the program? Ever played your worst game of football in front of an angry home field mob? Probably not. Please don’t mishear me, I’m not trying to be anyone’s or everyone’s moral compass, but I’m also not going to shrink from my belief that showering a young QB in boos was self-defeating.
B. Gunner and the “Quarterback Clusterversy™”
I watched the quarterbacks during Camp Higher Ground and in practices this spring and summer. Based on what I observed, I think you’d have a tough time making the argument that Gunner should’ve started at the beginning of the season. He was banged up for Spring ball. During Camp he was inconsistent and turned the ball over often, something the team focused on (read: 2015 – wasted year). I understand he was a huge recruit, but his play last season and this summer didn’t demand he be named the starter. After the first five games, the data now looks different.
Even so, I do not join the chorus of praise for how Gunner handled Tuberville’s decision to kick a field goal rather than go for it on 4th and 6. In case you missed it, Coach Tuberville and Gunner had a heated exchange during the fourth quarter. Did it end up being a bad in-game decision? Yes, without a doubt. But the worst thing a player can do for team chemistry and morale is take public positions against a coach in the middle of a game, no matter the reason.
In Gunner’s defense, he’s understandably frustrated for a variety of reasons. First, he’s a competitor and wants to win. At 23 years of age, Gunner has probably developed some adult opinions about how to win and what went wrong in the USF game. Second, he’s a competitor and wants to compete. He was named to a number of preseason quarterback award watch lists yet hasn’t seen the field as a starter this fall, his senior campaign. I cannot imagine his level of frustration, self-doubt, and confusion.
I’ve heard criticisms against Tuberville, that he hasn’t played Gunner because of some personal vendetta. While I doubt very seriously those claims, Saturday night does not support that perception. Coach Tuberville reacted how any coach would react to any player challenging their authority to make a decision in the middle of a game. Coach Tuberville is a Division 1 football coach; there is not a single D1 coach that would “turn the other cheek” under similar circumstances.
In my heart of hearts, I want to see Gunner start. I was elated when he committed to the Bearcats what seems a lifetime ago. He has an NFL body and can throw the deep ball. For whatever reason, be it hype or reality, I have more hope with the ball in his hands. We’ll see if he gets the start against UConn. That decision, mind you, will be made by Offensive Coordinator Zac Taylor who has no so-called “history” with Gunner.
C. Coach Tuberville, His Staff, and the Path Forward
Speaking of coaching, let me be the first to go on the record – I do not believe the school should part ways with Coach Tuberville. I’ve read (and heard) the many criticisms of the Tuberville regime – he doesn’t want to win, he’s trying to retire, and on and on. I’m sorry but I don’t buy the alarm and I don’t think that move would be helpful. At all. The Bearcats are 3-2 with seven games to play. If we go 10-2, would that make it clear Coach Tuberville wants to win? What about 9-3? 8-4? I see five wins left on the schedule, at least. The two losses so far have come from fourth quarter mistake-driven meltdowns, rather than lethargic no-shows. I ask – is it really that bad?
I know this is a tough read for many. I wade into the river of negativity offering a raft of optimism, knowing few will climb aboard. But I believe the round-the-clock sacrifices the coaches make, often apart from their families, to recruit constantly, build a program, and make a difference in players’ lives means something. There is not a coach on UC’s staff that doesn’t want to win. Desperately.
I’ve heard from numerous sources within the program that have worked and played for Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, and now Coach Tuberville. All of them have said the same things – Coach Tuberville has put the program in a far better position than when he found it. I know those data points don’t square with the “he’s ruining the program” narrative, but that’s what reliable, reasonable people on the inside have observed. The team lost six receivers, half the offensive line, and is transitioning under a new offensive scheme. The recruiting depth is developing, which is best evidenced by the many talented players that can now redshirt rather than play immediately out of necessity.
Many critics cite to his compensation, arguing he’s too highly paid. However, I think you’re missing some critical data points. In 2015, UC inked a 10 year, $50 million apparel deal (nearly doubling their deal with Adidas). The apparel contract pays the University more than LSU, Georgia, and Florida State, to name a few. Why do you think UC has the 12th largest apparel deal in the country? In a word – Tuberville.
Once upon a time, there was a young, enterprising man selling shirts out of the trunk of his car. Trying to gain an audience for his product, he reached out to a friend who knew the then-head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels, Tommy Tuberville. True to Tubs’ typical form, he gave the young man his time and encouraged his players to try out the shirts. Tubs even became an early investor in the young company. Fast forward to today…that young, enterprising man selling shirts out of his trunk is Kevin Plank – billionaire CEO of Under Armour. When the Adidas contract was set to expire, who do you think picked up the phone? How many other coaches can generate twice their salary from prior kindness and generosity?
My guess is that I’m one of the only ones saying this. I understand it’s an unpopular take. I understand that Mo and others in the UC media community are piling on. I just don’t agree with them, and I don’t think it helps our players and coaches win any more games, land more recruits, or build the program. With a win on the road against UConn, UC would be 4-2. Time will obviously tell, but I’m optimistic we’ll win.
D. Romanticizing the Past
For those of you romanticizing yesteryears, I offer some grim reminders. Mark Dantonio is gone. Brian Kelly is gone. Butch Jones is gone. Each of those coaches left for another opportunity and they’re not coming back. On their way out, each said UC was a “great job” and any coach “could win” in Clifton – the functional equivalent of, “She has a great personality, but….” To make matters worse, they left for greener pastures without a moment’s delay, resigning before bowl games. Coach Tuberville has committed to stay and build this program. He’s not looking for his next opportunity. His approach is more measured and methodical. His delivery in press conferences and at events is different and folksy. But, I just don’t see a 3-2 record as great cause for alarm.
In light of that, can we dispense with the circular firing squad, and support our current roster of players and coaches? Can we support our team, even after a tough loss?
All for now.
By Brian Fox