Matt Opper, the manager of SB Nation's Cincinnati blog, Down The Drive, took the time to answer some questions before us with Saturday's showdown in Champaign looming.
1. I really thought Tommy Tuberville was a great hire for Cincy. What are your thoughts on the hire?
I am all for it. For about a decade the Bearcats followed a very simple strategy in regards to coaching hires. They either attached themselves to a coordinator from a traditional power with either a certain desperation for that first job (Rick Minter from Notre Dame) or a coordinator from a traditional power with a sparkling resume (Mark Dantonio).
The other option, and the one taken before Tubs was to hire a young, obviously ambitious career orientated young gun, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. Though BK was more of a gun, and less about the young part. The end result since the dawn of the Dantonio era has been a whole lot of success, but very little stability.
Tuberville brings stability to the position. He will turn 58 this year, he doesn't have the interest in chasing his dream job anymore. He already had it. He has said that he has no interest in leaving. That is something that the three coaches before him said as well. but there is a difference in saying that, unbidden, in the spring before your first season and saying it in November and December when the rumors start flowing thick and fast. That could be me deluding myself looking for something that's not there. But I feel like Cincinnati is for Tommy Tuberville like Louisville was for Howard Schnellenberger, a chance to stop chasing the rush and to settle down a bit.
2. What do you see for the future of the American Athletic Conference, and do you think Cincinnati will be looking to join another conference in the near future?
The future of the AAC is inextricably linked to the future of the Big 12. If the Big 12 decides, or is told by the powers that be, that they have to have a conference championship game to be a member in good standing with the rest of the cabal of power conferences they will expand. They have applied for a waiver for a 10 team championship, and it was rejected. The only way to get the championship game is to expand. If they do so Cincinnati is positioned pretty well. UC is a top 25 public research university with a rising academic profile, it's in the 34th largest tv market in the country and it would give the Big 12 a foothold in Ohio and a bridge to West Virginia. UC is angling hard for a spot at the table, its hard to read the renovation and expansion of Nippert Stadium as anything but a business card to the Big 12. If they ask Cincinnati is gone. I would love to be the optimist and say that UC will wind up in the Big 12, but I can't. I just don't see how anyone convinces Texas that expansion is in their best interest for the long term, which it most definitely is.
3. What should Illini fans be expecting from the Bearcats? Also, which players should we look out for?
A little bit of everything offensively. Eddie Gran is a long time assistant, almost 30 years in the game, but a first time offensive coordinator. When he got the job Tommy Tuberville gave him carte blanch to go out and get the staff that he wanted. And the staff that he wanted turned out to be an offensive line coach with a ton of experience in running up tempo zone schemes at Arkansas State with a year spent at Nevada (in Chris Ault's last, last year). His passing game coordinator he plucked from Jim Chaney's last Tennessee staff. Oh and the first person Gran went to see upon getting the job was Noel Mazzone previously of Arizona State and now at UCLA. This is an offense that will show a defense a bit of everything. But it is still too early to say what the identity is. UC will probably always run more than they pass this year, but they have half a dozen ways to do it. That doesn't exactly constitute an identity. The player to watch on offense is Chris Moore, the former Parade All American is good for one or two jaw dropping catches a game,
The defense is another matter, everyone knows exactly what they are, and how they will do it. UC is a base 4-3 team, they rush four and drop 7 the majority of the time. Against Purdue UC blitzed three times, three times out of 57 plays. Art Kaufman is the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and that is who this defense is built around. 11 defensive linemen played in the first line rotation last Saturday, 7 DB's were in the first line rotation, but there was no real rotation among the linebackers. With good reason, Nick Temple, Jeff Luc and Greg Blair form one of the best line backing trio's in the country. They are fast, aggressive and disruptive and without question the players to watch on the defense.
4. Bearcats are flat out scary looking. Why name a team after those horrible mistakes of nature?
What this little guy? I wouldn't worry about this little guy. The Bearcat mascot doesn't actually come from the binturong (A.K.A. Bearcat) it comes from a former player. 99 or so years ago UC hosted Kentucky in a football contest. By this time UK was already known far and wide as the Wildcats, but UC had no nickname. During the game a UC cheerleader came up a cheer that went something to the effect of "you might be the Wildcats, but we have a Baher Cat." Leonard K. "Teddy" Baher was UC's talisman on that 1913 team, the domineering fullback and unquestioned star of the team. The name stuck around for a few more years, until Baher graduated when it was dropped. It wasn't until 1919 that the Bearcat name appeared in print again.
5. Obviously we have to ask you for your thoughts on your former athletic director, Mike Thomas. Do you hate him?
Oh, hate is not the word. I don't hate anyone really, O.K. I hate Dane Cook, but I don't hate Mike Thomas. What I do have for Mike Thomas is a contempt of the purest sort. Where to begin? I suppose I should start with this, Mike Thomas has as much blame for the Bearcats perilous state in the world of college sports as anyone else. For a start he had no idea it was coming. He had no earthly idea that any major changes to college sports world were coming. Anyone with a basic understanding of economics could see the link between the value of ever escalating TV contracts doled out from the networks to the conferences, and the conferences corresponding need to increase their share of the marketplace for college sports by finding untapped markets for their products. Despite a year of ever growing buzz of innuendo and rumor Thomas was, by all accounts, completely blindsided by the news when Nebraska bolted to the Big 10. Most people who follow college sports intently weren't surprised by the school, or the destination, it was the timing that was off, it happened in a flash. Thomas was completely in the dark. I get how that can happen, even for someone in his position.
What I don't get is how he could process the news and come to the conclusion that whatever happens outside of it, the Big East will be fine and the best possible home for UC. He doubled down on the Big East at the exact same moment that Louisville, TCU, Syracuse, Rutgers, Pitt and UConn started scrambling for the last golden parachutes. It took years for the bets of those schools to pay off, but those were a lot of years in which those schools could sell themselves without UC even injecting themselves into the conversation. It was a mind numbing mistake, but one that fits perfectly with how Thomas ran the athletic department. Given the choice to do something or do nothing Thomas always did nothing.
He never seriously pursed renovating Nippert Stadium. His years as AD had lots of discussions about the topic, and lots of feasibility studies done, but he sat on the project. He couldn't see the need. When he got there UC was practicing at Nippert Stadium. At the time they were one of about 5 to 10 teams without a dedicated practice facility. Brian Kelly made it a priority, and basically did the fund raising for the facility on his own. When Kelly got there he disliked the cell phone plans offered for his staff. He went to Thomas to try and find something that offered the coaches more flexibility, even at a marginally higher cost. Thomas said no, Kelly said "Fuck your phones*" and went out and got his entire staff the phones they wanted and paid for it out of his own pocket. I could honestly go on with anecdotes like those, I have dozens of them but you get the point. He fought everyone, on everything.
*That's a direct quote, but not a reenactment
I am sure that you have heard all the stories about how Thomas departed UC, but not the why. What follows is not a sourced and confirmed story (editor's note: Please keep this previous sentence in mind while reading the rest of this answer), but it is something that I have heard from so many people, in so many variations that I think the actual story follows the same trajectory. UC's former president Gregory Williams worked with Thomas for about 18 months before giving him an ultimatum of sorts, find another job or I will fire you a year from now. Thomas obviously found another job.
All the rumors about the manor of his departure are to the best of my knowledge true. No one knew where he was at the day he was introduced in Illinois. He never gathered his staff to let them know that he was pursuing other opportunities. Nor did he send out some canned remarks to the athletic department staff via email or text. The vast majority of athletic department employees found out that Mike Thomas left when the rest of the world did. As for the rumor about champagne bottles being popped in the halls and offices of the Lindner Center I can't confirm that, but they those people did throw a party that night, and they deserved it. All of us would if we had to work for Mike Thomas for 5 years.
O.K., so maybe I do hate Mike Thomas
6. What is your prediction for the game?
It's got to be UC. This being a game that is on the road, and kicking off at 11 A.M. local time will surely have some effect on the early part of the game. But I just think that UC is the deeper and more talented team. I expect more of a fight from Illinois than Purdue ended up giving but the end result will be the same, a Cincinnati win.