The University of Cincinnati is a fascinating study of college football at the mid-major level. After a string of relatively successful seasons, predicated by a string of three successful head coaches, the school is once again dealing with the pains of losing its chief play caller to a bigger, better program.
Mark Dantonio, of course, started the trend toward creating a perception of UC as both a real player in the college football conversation and as a good stepping-stone program for coaching talent. Dantonio was the first coach in 23 years to lead the school to a winning season in his first year, going 7-5 in 2004. He led the team during the school's move into the Big East, took the team to two bowl games in three seasons, going 7-5 in 2004 and 2006.
He was promptly gobbled up by Michigan State, where as we know, he coaches yet today.
Following Dantonio was Brian Kelly, called up from Central Michigan after winning the MAC in 2006. Kelly did even better at UC than did Dantonio, finishing 34-6 in four seasons, winning the (yawn) Big East twice and playing in four Bowl Games, including two BCS appearances (which the team lost). During his tenure at UC, Kelly's Bearcats finished ranked in the AP poll three of four years, something else Dantonio's teams failed to do (note, this is not a Kelly > Dantonio comment, as much of Kelly's success was predicated on the rebuilding Dantonio did during his run).
Leading us to the most recent UC defector, Butch Jones. Jones, who followed Kelly at both Central Michigan and UC, went 23-14 in three seasons, winning the Big East crown twice and going to two Bowl Games, including a victorious outing in last season's Liberty Bowl. His victory over SEC school Vanderbilt (hey, they ain't Kentucky) was coupled with being named 2011 Big East Coach of the Year.
He was promptly gobbled up by a troubled University of Tennessee. Rocky Top has certainly seen a rocky stretch, and the school needed a big "get" in the silly season to right a sinking ship. Butch's ability to do that remains to be seen - his resume isn't quite as strong as Kelly's, so I don't know if anyone expects the big orange machine to be vying for a national title in three years, but anything's possible.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, is at a turning point. After being a dominant player in the now-on-life-support Big East (the Bearcats won at least a share of the conference title four out of the past five years), the school is making a run at joining the "we're not one of the Big 4 conferences, but we're really close" ACC. Joining a better conference is not a bad move, considering the Bearcats have probably exhausted their upward mobility in a struggling conference better known for basketball than for pigskin prowess. (Although it appears that Louisville's move into the Atlantic Coast Conference may have slammed the doors on an entrance by the Bearcats, unless the conference opts to go bigger, perhaps considering UConn or UC.)
Two big issues appear to be keeping UC from keeping coaches for more than the three seasons needed to catapult themselves to a top-tier program: money and facilities, which are in reality sides of the same coin.
The facilities issues are easy and obvious to understand:
There's also a lot of work to do on the athletic facilities, with little money available.
During Jones' tenure, Cincinnati expanded its football facility, adding a practice field with a protective bubble for bad weather. The school is trying to figure out how to upgrade 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium, which is the second-oldest playing site in the nation for a college team behind Penn's Franklin Field. Nippert has been in use since 1901.Despite their Big East success, the Bearcats have played in front of disappointing crowds at Nippert. They drew only 21,171 fans on senior night — their smallest crowd of the season — for a 27-10 win over South Florida this year.
Nippert and the UC fanbase are problematic - if you can't get butts in the seats, you can't do a lot of things you need to do to stay competitive at the highest levels of college football. Similarly, five-star recruits don't want to spend their days in sub-par training and practice facilities when there are plenty of big-time programs spending millions upon millions to offer professional-grade (or better) athletic facilities.
Coaching salaries are the other big issue leading coaches to greener pastures. As I discussed earlier this week, schools are spending more money to attract better talent, understanding that there is a correlation with trading up and winning games.
In three seasons at UC, Jones averaged $1.42 million in compensation. UC football earned the athletic program $13.4 million on an investment of $11.2 million. As we also discussed, spending on assistant coaches make as much or more of a difference in football program performance as does spending on the head coach. UC spent $1.5 million on Jones' staff in 2011.
By comparison, former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley earned an average of $2.1 million over his three seasons with the Volunteers, and his staff earned an aggregate $3.2 million in 2011 - more than double what Cincinnati spent on its assistant coaching staff. Kelly and Dantonio likewise earned significantly more money and had a significantly larger payroll for staff in moving to the Irish and Spartans locker rooms.
Can the Bearcats come up with enough cash to make a dent in their facilities deficiencies and upgrade their coaching payroll? It's doubtful. With an overall athletic budget last year of $43.6 million, the Bearcats football expenditures are already nearly a quarter of the budget, and though the program operated in the black, it only turned an athletic gain of $2.2 million to the department.
As with most things, a cycle of sorts plays out here: spending more money to upgrade facilities and coaching talent will likely net better players, and coaching longevity will net better and better on-field performance in a potentially better conference that will net more and more money in ticket sales, licensing revenues and television rights. In other words "if you build it, they will come."
Of course, you've got to bite the bullet and build it first.