Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer 525d

New coach Luke Fickell has the Bearcats' attention

College Football, Cincinnati Bearcats

CINCINNATI -- The little things can be found in the freezing temperatures of a predawn workout.

They're down in the mud for players willing to dig around and get a little dirty. Or on a rain-soaked practice field that makes even a spring practice a bit tougher. And in a unit room stripped of all graphics and decorated only with the school colors painted on the walls, they're the only focus when the Bearcats sit down for meetings.

The tiny, important details so crucial to winning obviously slipped over the last few years for Cincinnati, which not too long ago had built itself into a fixture in the national polls and an annual threat to make an appearance in a BCS bowl game. Luke Fickell took the reins in December well aware of that potential, and by the next month the Bearcats were introduced to his approach designed to help tap into that potential once again.

The program is simply called "Attention Training," and it doubled as a new coach's method for getting Cincinnati's attention right away while also teaching a mindset that would no longer allow the small stuff to slip through the cracks.

"Oh my goodness, that was the worst," senior running back Mike Boone said. "We were up at like five in the morning, bear-crawling in the snow. They found a muddy field, had us army-rolling in the mud. He tested us mentally, just to see who was going to compete.

"Personally, I feel like we needed that. The attitude part, some people haven't had the right attitude. In the past people would have been like, 'Oh, I don't want to do this, I don't want to do that.' But from the jump, Coach Fick needed to see -- and I think as players we did, too -- who was going to complain. That attention training brought everything out."

If there was complaining, Fickell maintains that he hasn't heard it. Considering that it was his first real introduction as the leader of the Bearcats after leaving his post as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, he was certainly listening for it.

From the challenges he and strength coach Brady Collins issued in January, to the revamping of the offseason program to an energized spring camp that ended with Friday's exhibition at Nippert Stadium, the Bearcats have appeared to embrace it all completely. A program that was in the Orange Bowl in the 2008 season and a Sugar Bowl the next season has progressively slid off the map without posting a double-digit win total since 2012, ultimately sinking to a 4-8 record that brought an end to Tommy Tuberville's tenure.

The Bearcats are thirsty to win again, and Fickell's track record of helping Ohio State do it at a high level had already given him a head start getting the attention of his new players.

"Coach Fickell is a firm believer that you can take a horse to water, and you can actually force it to drink the water," safety Carter Jacobs joked. "It's not always one of those deals where it chooses to drink the water. But around here, there has just been a spark and energy for it. You could see it in every player, every coach, everyone around us.

"We had been kind of lackadaisical and the little things didn't matter to us. But they add up. And that attention is helping us get back to where we used to be -- not the last couple years, but where we were before."

Now a few years removed from the most successful stretch in school history, Cincinnati isn't exactly in position to just use those past victories, bowl appearances or even the existing facilities to return as a New Year's Six contender.

Fickell's barking on the practice field that players never jog off to the sideline set the hard-working tone after the rain showers had provided some early adversity for a team without a permanent indoor facility. The absence from the postseason a year ago is a reminder that the recruiting pitches weren't going to be slam dunks even for in-state talent in his first class, though a revamped social-media presence has elevated the work there for 2018. While the renovation of the basketball arena and construction all over Varsity Village at Cincinnati has forced the football team to find a temporary home for its weight room, even that has sparked ideas for Fickell about how he might want it configured down the road.

Adversity isn't just for players, and obviously neither is attention to detail. All of it comes with the benefit of knowing what the Bearcats are capable of if they all respond the right way.

"I just think sometimes you have to tear down in order to build back up," Fickell said. "The original purpose for attention training was obviously to get their attention, to make sure they knew who we were and what we're all about, what we're going to focus on to be successful. It was the attention not just to detail, but to hard work, to toughness, to chaos and being able to handle it. But I guess it has kind of escalated into everything.

"I expected us to have some pushback and some guys who didn't want to be involved with this. They handled it well, and they actually looked like they enjoyed it. That just kind of showed me that they hadn't been asked to do that, and they were actually hungry and wanted something different."

Fickell provided it right away. Now the Bearcats are doing everything he asks to reclaim the little things -- and the nation's attention.

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