For Bearcats, winning Orange Bowl would be the lush life

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
MIAMI -- The Fontainebleau, Cincinnati's home during FedEx Orange Bowl week, is a shrine to opulence.

Re-opened last month after a reported $500 million renovation, the Miami Beach resort is teeming with stars and stargazers around its 45,000 square foot lobby and lush pool cabanas. Bearcats players and officials have done double-takes while spotting Jamie Foxx, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Alex Rodriguez in their hotel this week.

Whenever they had to leave the decadent grounds this week, Cincinnati's entire entourage was given a police escort to and from their destinations. On Tuesday night, the team took in the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade showdown at a Cleveland Cavaliers-Miami Heat game.

Power programs like USC and Florida probably take this kind of royal bowl treatment as a given. But the BCS-newbie Bearcats are used to postseason trips to places like Birmingham, Toronto and Fort Worth. So you couldn't blame them for being wide-eyed and slack-jawed here, just happy for the opportunity to play on this stage Thursday night against Virginia Tech.

Except that they're not approaching it that way.

"Winning this game means everything," quarterback Tony Pike said. "It's a great honor to make the Orange Bowl. At the same time, down the road we don't want to just tell people we made it to the Orange Bowl. We want to say we got to the Orange Bowl and we won it."

It's debatable just how important winning a BCS game is to a program. Ask Louisville, which won its first BCS appearance in the 2007 Orange Bowl -- and hasn't made the postseason since. Or look at last year's Orange Bowl champion, Kansas, which finished 7-5 this year. Just getting here was enough to energize the Cincinnati fan base and provide immeasurable exposure.

But the Bearcats also take seriously the responsibility of carrying the Big East banner. They're very aware that since they joined the league in 2005, the Big East has gone 3-0 in BCS games. They do not want to be the ones to break that streak.

"We want to represent the Big East," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "We want to get more and more respect for the Big East, because we know how people talk about our conference."

On Wednesday morning, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly pointed to the Big East's 11-2 bowl record in its last 13 games.

"We can let the numbers speak for themselves," he said.

But when asked after last month's win over Syracuse about the league's credibility issue, here's what he had to say:

"I think validation is that you have to play well any time you're on a national stage. I don't think we have to apologize for anything, but we do a carry a burden, and that's that we have to continue to play well out of conference."

Kelly said whether Cincinnati wins or loses Thursday night won't do much to change the perception of his program. That only comes from repeated appearances in these kinds of games. And he has the perfect example on the other sideline.

Like Cincinnati, Virginia Tech had a modest college football history until Frank Beamer got things going in Blacksburg. The former Big East member has now been to 16 straight bowl games.

"There is no other perception than success when you go 16 straight," Kelly said. "So this is a journey; this is a process for us. We think we've made great strides. There's a long road ahead of us that we'll have to continue to work on."

Beamer said the Bearcats remind him of when his own team made its first trip to what are now known as the BCS games, when the Hokies beat Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl.

"I know that was a big steppingstone for us," he said. "But then when you get there, to win it,
it's another step. I think it's two big steps. I guess I'd say it that way."

Though the Hokies have the huge edge in big-game experience, Kelly and his staff are used to dealing with pressure situations. They successfully guided Grand Valley State through the Division II playoffs and have won two bowl games already at Cincinnati, including one just weeks after Kelly took the Bearcats job in December 2005.

Handling the trappings of South Beach is something new. But Kelly said his players faced similar distractions in their season-ending game at Hawaii, when the team stayed at a beachside hotel. This is just a little more opulent.

OK, a lot more.

"It's been unbelievable here," Barwin said. "Everything is top notch.

"But after it's over, you don't remember what the weather was like or anything like that. You remember if you won or lost the game."