It was the first day of August, on a humid day in Newport, R.I.
I made the rounds at the famous Big East clambake, introducing myself to coaches and players and league officials, because, well, I was the new kid on the block. I finally made my way to the Cincinnati table and sat next to linebacker JK Schaffer. We exchanged pleasantries, and then Schaffer challenged me:
Why was everybody down on Cincinnati?
The biggest question, of course, was the defense. So I asked him to give me five reasons why the Bearcats would be better on his side of the ball this season.
He mentioned experience; having a second year in the system; being better at limiting third-down conversions; being better at limiting big plays; and leadership.
Being the really smart person that I am, I continued to doubt. But as usual, the Bearcats proved not only me but everybody else wrong this season. Cincinnati hit each and every one of Schaffer's points in a major way, a big reason why the Bearcats won a share of their third Big East championship in the past four seasons. Not only that, Cincinnati reached 10 wins for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
It is a credit to Schaffer and his impressive senior class that this team was able to go from 4-8 to Big East and bowl champions.
"Twenty‐one seniors and they mean everything to our football program," coach Butch Jones said after the win over Vanderbilt in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. "We talk about being a family and being able to overcome adversity. I just think it’s true irony that last year at this time give or take a couple hours everybody went their separate ways and we weren’t in a bowl game. I text messaged every one of our players and said 2011, be a champion. We’re going to be back in a bowl game. Our players answered everything we asked them to do. They are truly champions."
Schaffer once again piled up more than 100 tackles. Derek Wolfe and Isaiah Pead became the first Cincinnati players honored as Big East players of the year. Zach Collaros showed the guts and the heart of a champion when he returned from a broken ankle to lead this team against Vanderbilt -- a .500 team that was favored to beat a Big East champion.
"We live in a SportsCenter society," Jones said. "Everyone’s going to turn the highlights on. They’re going to go to ESPN and turn it on and see the highlights. What they’re not going to see is the eight hours every day with (team trainer) Bob Mangine and (team surgeon) Angelo Colosimo and all the hard work he put in; the eight hours a day rehabbing his ankle to play in this football game. When he was carted off the field in West Virginia he said, 'Coach, I’ll be back.' The perseverance that young man showed to make it back and lead his team to victory in his last game is all you need to know about Zach Collaros."
Then there are Alex Hoffman and Randy Martinez, who helped anchor one of the best offensive lines in the Big East. One of the biggest intangibles to the success of any team is senior leadership. You either have it or you don't. The teams that do become winners, and that is what happened this season. Players like Schaffer, Collaros and Pead stepped up to carry everybody else along the way, both on the field and off. To put it simply, this group set a standard for every other class to follow.
That becomes the next big question -- how does Cincinnati maintain this standard? But there is plenty of time to look ahead. For now, Cincinnati should take pride in what this group of young men accomplished.