By Joe Kay
The Associated Press
CINCINNATI — Tommy Tuberville’s next challenge is to turn Cincinnati’s already successful football program into something interesting enough to bring out the crowds and get other conferences interested, too.
It would help if he stuck around for a while.
The 58-year-old coach from Texas Tech brought a high-profile name to the football program when he was hired as head coach on Saturday. His predecessors were up-and-comers — an assistant at Ohio State, two Mid-American Conference coaches — who used the job as a career launch point.
The Bearcats hope Tuberville helps them become more than just a stepping stone.
“His resume, his experience speak for themselves,” senior quarterback Brendon Kay said. “I think it’s going to allow us to buy into what he’s selling right away.”
Mainly, he has to sell the program.
The Bearcats (9-3) have won or shared the Big East title in four of the last five seasons under Brian Kelly, who left for Notre Dame after three years, and Butch Jones, who left for Tennessee on Friday after his third season.
Even though they’ve been a success on the field, they’ve struggled to fill 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium. They’ve had to settle being a low-profile championship team stuck in a conference that’s coming apart because of defections.
The Bearcats even tried to leave a few weeks ago, lobbying the Atlantic Coast Conference. It chose rival Louisville instead.
Cincinnati still could jump to a bigger conference as realignment continues in the coming years. Tuberville’s hiring gives it a recognizable face for the football program that could make it more attractive to outsiders.
“It certainly was not done with that intent,” athletic director Whit Babcock said. “And I want our friends in the Big East to know we’re happy to compete in the league and we want to win it. So no, it was not done with that angle in mind.
“But if it gives Cincinnati more visibility — a rising tide raises all the boats.”
Tuberville wasn’t turned off by Cincinnati’s conference instability, insisting a winning program is attractive to any conference. There are suggestions that the NCAA will eventually wind up with super conferences.
“Things will change and they’re going to change every day for the next few years, and everybody knows where it’s headed,” Tuberville said.
He went 20-17 in three seasons at Texas Tech, where attendance increased after he was hired. The school sold 46,565 season tickets for his first year, a school record. Babcock hopes that Cincinnati, which drew only 21,171 fans for the final home game this season, will see a jump in attendance as well.
Babcock was encouraged that approximately 1,000 fans showed up at UC’s basketball arena for a pep rally welcoming Tuberville on Saturday night, chanting “Tommy T” when he was introduced.
“I hope it energizes the fan base,” Babcock said. “He’s a great promoter, one of the most laid-back CEO-type of leaders I’ve ever seen. But he can be fiery, too. I like it. Time will tell.”
As for how long he’ll stick around ...
The last three coaches all left after three seasons, moving onto to bigger programs and bigger paychecks. Tuberville left Texas Tech after three seasons, one day after telling athletics director Kirby Hocutt that he was committed to staying with the Red Raiders.
The cycle of having a coach leave as soon as he’s had a few successful seasons has stamped Cincinnati as a career launching point, a place to build a reputation before moving on to something better.
Babcock is hoping that with Tuberville, that can change.
When Babcock called Tuberville — an acquaintance from their days at Auburn and his first choice to replace Jones — he got a good feeling about longevity right away.
“I didn’t even have to ask about it,” Babcock said. “He said, ‘You know what? If I come there to be your football coach, I’ll stay.’ I didn’t prompt it and I know it’s certainly no guarantee, but I was happy to hear that even before I could ask the question.”
Tuberville knew that Cincinnati was looking for someone who was willing to treat the place more like a home than a hotel.
“You can kind of read people’s minds in our business and (know) what’s going on and what’s happened in the past,” Tuberville said. “I don’t know, it just kind of hit me what the feeling was, what his feeling was. You can tell, too, even though I’m over 1,000 miles away — the attitude of what’s happened and how disappointed people are in not having consistency.”
The Bearcats have had consistency with those four Big East titles in five years. What they need is a jump in attendance and a coach willing to stick around for more than a few years.
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay
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