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AS OUR HEADS SPIN, ROOTING FOR CINCINNATI IS A HAPPY PLACE
Seismic changes in college football leave little room for romanticism, but after a week that will change the sport forever, the rise of the upstart Bearcats to the national semifinals is therapy
Something is soothing and sublime about seeing CINCINNATI tucked inside a bracket, alongside ALABAMA and MICHIGAN and GEORGIA. It's like chomping into a cheese coney at one of the city's chili emporiums, welcoming an intruder into a sumptuous feast of Beluga caviar, Wagyu beef and bluefin tuna.
This almost restores our faith in college football-kind, after a week of disturbing excess that ravaged the sham of higher academia — a trail of covert coaching raids, $100 million contracts, damaged feelings, forced Cajun accents and lies upon lies upon lies. This never was supposed to happen amid the backroom politics of a multi-billion-dollar industry, an outlier crashing the final four of the College Football Playoff, a bumpkin in a sport lorded by the high society of Power 5 conferences and a TV network that wants Gucci, Chanel, Prada and Balenciaga on its air.
But Target will be in the national semifinals anyway, on New Year's Eve, ESPN be damned. And I will be breaking from journalistic practice and cheering for the Bearcats, though I know little about them except that coach Luke Fickell is NFL-bound, quarterback Desmond Ridder is the bomb and, best of all, they beat Notre Dame in South Bend, the loss that ultimately sent Brian Kelly on his shameful path to LSU, where he further embarrassed himself by trying to pull off the phoniest thing ever in a phony business. You've watched the cringey clip by now, a man who grew up in Massachusetts and has coached for decades in the Midwest, straining so hard to sound like a native Louisianan that you wanted to smother him in Crystal hot sauce and feed him to Mike VII, the school's live tiger mascot.
"It’s a great night to be a Tiii-ger,'' Kelly drawled clumsily, speaking to fans at halftime of an LSU basketball game. "I’m here with my fam-a-lee, and we are so excited to be in the great state of Louisiana but more importantly to be with you great fans and to be part of what is going to be an incredible ride here at Louisiana State University!''
While Kelly fits in with the other shifty politicians in that state, and Lincoln Riley continues to deliver USC's two-fingered football salute at a university with more scandals than the Kremlin, Cincinnati becomes the first Group of 5 team to play for a national championship. The timing is just what the shrink ordered, as we try to wrap our heads around all the bloated insanity. The coups only will continue, with Miami poaching Oregon for native son Mario Cristobal. And now that the nine-figure, two-comma contractual bar has been established — with perks as outlandish as Kelly getting an extra $500,000 annually as long as he wins half his regular-season games, on top of his $9.5 million a year — the coaching carousel has become a bigger story than who wins the championship.
Meanwhile, the athletes continue to be exploited, with only elite players earning compensation via new NIL pathways. Yet even those payments are mere crumbs compared to the coaching megasalaries — and it's a system doomed to be top-heavy, dependent on the number of wealthy, powerful boosters willing to ante up for talent at a university. Why would Riley leave Oklahoma? Because at USC, in addition to the sunshine and the beach and the privilege, he can call program-friendly Hollywood moguls and agents to pay players via their names, images and likenesses. Why would Kelly leave South Bend? Because at LSU, the pool of NIL-ready boosters is much larger than at Notre Dame, which, to a recruit in 2022, is just a cold place in Indiana with ancient lore about echoes and legends. At this point, the sport's imperial family consists of Alabama, USC, Georgia and Ohio State, with Notre Dame and Clemson on the periphery, Miami poised to pounce, and Michigan positioned for upward mobility if this season is more than a one-off for Jim Harbaugh.
That's why Cincinnati is such an uplifting, refreshing breakthrough. Finally, the playoff has a March Madness-like upstart we can embrace. Through gritted teeth, the CFP selection committee had no choice but to include the Bearcats after Ohio State was ransacked by Michigan and Oklahoma State lost to Baylor. A committee directly connected to Power 5 behemoths seemed to enjoy dissing Group of 5 teams in the first seven years of the Playoff, never seriously considering unbeaten Cincinnati last year or unbeaten UCF in 2017 and 2018. Much as the 13 members might have resisted in their hotel ballroom near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, they invited the so-called trailer trash to their Met Gala.
"A lot of people doubted us. That's where the gratification comes,'' Fickell said. "Our guys had to prove it, and they've had to go through their ups and downs. A lot of doubters — but they've been able to handle all that and continue to do what's most important, and that's perform on the field. We don’t want to feel like we’re carrying some flag for the non-big schools, so to speak. We just want to be us.”
Keep being you, Cincinnati. Not that I carry any delusions that Team Interloper can become Team Destiny. As the No. 4 seed, the Bearcats next face Nick Saban, who only padded his standing as the greatest of all college football coaches by once again flaunting his prowess as the best single-game strategist ever. Was Alabama playing possum all year, barely surviving Auburn the week before and looking vulnerable month after month? But Saban employed a convenient, old motivational trick — media and fans disrespecting the Crimson Tide — to once again reduce one of his disciples, Kirby Smart, to a not-so-smart loser. When all the world seemingly had Georgia romping to a national title, now Smart and the Bulldogs must deal with Michigan and Harbaugh, who finally has gotten out of his own way and matured on the job.
Meaning, Saban likely is on his way to his eighth national title. I'd like to think the Bearcats can stay close, with a strong defense and Ridder at the rudder, but that's not happening. Saban smells blood again — and why not, with Bryce Young ascending to a Heisman Trophy speech as he continues a Tuscaloosa quarterbacking machine that recently produced Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts.
"I think what these guys really wanted to gain was more respect," Saban told the media after the SEC title game thrashing. "Not just the fact that they were underdogs, because I think we had a tremendous amount of respect for Georgia, their team and what they accomplished. But you guys gave us a lot of really positive rat poison. The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal, but the rat poison that you put out there this week was yummy."
The rat poison supply has shifted to Athens, where Smart is in denial. "It didn't do any damage,'' he said of the 41-24 blowout. "It re-energized us. What it did was reinvigorate our energy. That's an opportunity for a wakeup call.'' Rather, it reintroduced a nagging narrative, that Smart can't win big games — including his last four against Saban — despite a defense that has been one of college football's best in recent memory. If he loses to Harbaugh, the clamor for a new coach might resemble that at USC and LSU. Next thing you know, Georgia officials will be slinking at all hours of the night to steal someone else's hotshot.
It won't be Fickell. To his everlasting credit, he rejected all calls from Power 5 programs in recent weeks. He could have dipped his toe into the crazy-money game, but his team came first — unlike Kelly, who bolted as the Fighting Irish still were contending for a playoff berth. "Those people want to talk, they don't want to wait,'' Fickell told ESPN. "Then, you've got your own kid on the team and he starts calling his mom, 'What's going on? Nothing. I tell you the same thing I tell the team.' It's very fortunate that we've got an older crew that did a phenomenal job of just handling (noise). It didn't get to them too much."
Soon enough, Fickell will bypass the college racket and jump to the NFL, where he was interviewed last winter by the Detroit Lions. Don't be shocked if Harbaugh, too, makes a leap back to the league, perhaps to the Chicago Bears. The one man who isn't leaving is the one who reigns above it all, Saban, who grows upset only when Alabama fans take success for granted. Even that rant, last month, was largely ignored. St. Nick can do and say what he wants, as he all but acknowledged in a New York Times interview.
"I hear people say all the time, 'Well, you make a lot of money,' ‘’ he said of his own $10 million-plus-a-year contract. "Yeah, but I create a lot of value. There’s more money to reinvest because (football does) very, very well.''
So well that his players, even when the team was struggling a few weeks ago, made time to celebrate Saban's birthday. "70 and Still a Playa,'' was the theme. His favorite cake?
"I like carrot cake,'' Saban said, "and Miss Carla probably makes the best carrot cake in Tuscaloosa County, for sure.''
His drawl was natural, real. His rivals can stage all the raids they want, push compensation to $200 million, and no one is beating him. It will be fun watching Cincinnati try, albeit for five or 10 minutes.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.