Behind the scenes for the 48 hours that made the history of Cincinnati football

CINCINNATI – Luke Fickell doesn’t remember getting much, if any, sleep on Saturday night.

First, it’s celebrating on the field with his team – and seemingly the entire campus – after completing a perfect season that will make playoff history. It was followed by gatherings at his home, where close friends and family gathered to commemorate the occasion.

Before he knew it, Fickell had to arrive at the office earlier than usual on Sunday morning, meet with recruiters and prepare for the important high-level party, planned weeks in advance.

“Sleep is overrated,” says Fickell.

The party is usually scheduled at noon. But this year, they had no way of knowing it would turn into a big watch party.

With that being the case, the College Football Playoff selection committee will announce the playoffs at 12:15 p.m. Thirty minutes before the show begins in a quiet moment in his office, Fickell said he feels optimistic his Bearcats will be in the top four, but at the same time, “Nothing doesn’t surprise me.”

Maybe it’s because every time a Pool 5 team goes undefeated in the BCS and College Football Playoff eras, they never get the chance to play for the national championship. Many college football fans and pundits who watched Boise State, TCU, and UCF and yes, Cincinnati, fired immediately, never thought this day would come.

Fickell said he doesn’t want his players to believe they are carrying banners for other conferences, but there’s no way to downplay the importance of the moment. Cincinnati will always be the decisive torchbearer for the Group of 5 in the four-team playoff system.

This day will always belong to them.

“They had to prove it, and they had to go through their ups and downs,” Fickell said. “A lot of people had doubts, but they were able to handle all of that and continue to do what matters most, and that is performance on the pitch.”

But it’s not always easy. Fickell gave ESPN a window into the growing pressure and tension that both he and his players must battle as the season progresses. At one point he even wondered if Cincinnati had the energy to finish the season the way it should – with strong performances to make sure a top-four finish was worth it.

Although Fickell answers a question about the playoffs every week of the season, he doesn’t live in a vacuum. Although no Team 5 team has made it to the playoffs yet, Cincinnati has entered the season with a shot as good as any to pierce the glass ceiling that always exists in shows like these.

That’s because it has a veteran group with the best players back: midfielders Desmond Ridder, reverse angle Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, and all 32 seniors to lead an undefeated team in the 2020 regular season before losing to Georgia at the last second in a game at the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

“I’ve always felt it could be a two-year process,” said Cincinnati sporting director John Cunningham. “When I took this job, what were we talking about? I think we needed to hold ourselves high enough to be considered at the start of the year, which we didn’t necessarily have to do at the end of the year. Last year then we needed to have a schedule that matches where if we run the table it’s a strong schedule and the game against Notre Dame is obviously key to the whole season. I know that the American Conference always has really good teams, so I’m glad we were able to do it.”

Cincinnati started the year in 8th place and quickly proved it with road wins over Indiana and Notre Dame.

As the wins pile up, so do the questions. Have the Bearcats won enough? Can they really compete with the elite Power 5? Will the commission find a way to keep them out?

Fickell has never mentioned that issue to his team, but he knows if his players can come back in a strong month to close out the season, that’s all the evidence the commission says. the selection committee will need.

As Fickell hoped, Cincinnati combined one strong performance after another in the final weeks of the season, including a dominant 48-14 win over ranked SMU.

But then, the training carousel was in full swing. The USC job – once associated with Fickell because its AD hired Fickell at Cincinnati – went to Lincoln Riley, while Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly joined LSU. And suddenly, another question won’t go away.

Will Fickell leave the Bearcats for a bigger job?

Fickell said a number of schools have wanted to speak to him over the past few weeks, but he is adamant that he won’t speak to anyone until the day after the AAC championship game.

“Those people want to talk, they don’t want to wait,” Fickell said.

“Then you have a kid of your own on the team and he starts calling his mom, ‘What’s going on?’ He added: “Nothing. I tell you the same thing I tell the team.” It’s so fortunate that we have an older team that we’ve done a phenomenal job of just handling – whether it’s the knockouts or the play. not good enough – that doesn’t affect them too much.”

Now the Bearcats just need to prove it again, against No. 21 Houston in the American title game, and hope the committee won’t let Oklahoma State No. 5 overtake them with the Big 12 title.

Less than an hour before the game began, as school and convention officials prepared for the game, Oklahoma State lost to Baylor in stunning style. The phone started buzzing with news. US Commissioner Mike Aresco received a call from his wife, who described ultimate goal play as Aresco had listened incredulously.

It has become clear: Six inches could very well determine Cincinnati’s playoff fate.

All Cincinnati has to do is win.

The first half is a close, reciprocal love affair. In the third round, Cincinnati capitalized on some of Houston’s mistakes and made the game open with three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. As the fourth quarter ended, expectations inside Nippert Stadium grew even more frenzied.

John Widecan, deputy sporting director in charge of football activities, looked around the stadium and marveled. Widecan has worked at Cincinnati since 1989 and has seen key moments on the show – including an undefeated 2009 season, appearances in the Orange and Sugar Bowls, and several other field storms. . But absolutely nothing prepared him for what was to come.

“When we got to the stop, there were two more minutes, and we were able to bring the game down to about 30 seconds, to see all the lights from everyone’s phones in the stadium and the sky cams going around, nothing likes it,” Widecan said.

The fans began to line up along the aisles, planning to find their way into the field. Cunningham said that before the game started, they had planned for a moment like this, and agreed that the safest way to proceed was to raise the gates leading into the field to avoid trampling. Sure enough, when the game ended with a 35-20 Cincinnati win that left the Bearcats the only unbeaten team left, fans flooded forward.

But it was chaotically controlled. No one pushes and shoves or throws elbows. The excitement of the moment swept everyone into a sea of ​​raised camera phones and jubilant celebrations as “We Are the Champions” played in the background. They all know – the players, the coach, the support staff, the fans, the mayor of Cincinnati (also in attendance) – that all but one place in the top four.

“A lot of people who have worked here before, the former players, the people who are really invested in this program, the sponsors, were in tears,” Cunningham said. “Emotions go to them because it’s too hard to get to that point. It’s hard to be unbeaten, to win 13 in a row and to be able to celebrate. That’s really cool. I’ve been here a short time. But people who have been investing for years and this is their passion – I love seeing their faces and reactions.”

Cunningham and his wife celebrated with burgers at a local steakhouse, while Fickell celebrated at home.

While Fickell met with the recruits in the morning, Cunningham, Widecan and others on the executive team began mapping out their possible destinations and booking chartered planes to take them December 26 to Miami for Orange Bowl or Dallas for Cotton Bowl. Orange Bowl officials were in town for Saturday’s game, and had been preparing to host Cincinnati for weeks – based on the belief that No. 1 Georgia would play No. 4 Cincinnati in South Florida. So Cincinnati figured out a possible destination that was Miami.

But after Georgia lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game, the calculus changed.

At past noon, Fickell entered the party room inside Nippert Stadium. The AAC Championship sign was still flashing on the stadium scoreboard outside the window. He grabbed the microphone and told everyone they were going to move the overhead screen to the selection show.

Then the players and their families started preparing for the buffet. Fickell put a muffin and bacon on his plate and stood in the back of the room. Quiet anticipation filled the air, but a greater sense of certainty seemed to take hold.

Because 12 hours earlier, people inside and outside of the Cincinnati program had largely realized that this was really, really, really happening: They would be the first Group of Five school to make it to the knockouts. next.

When the announcement came and the Cincinnati logo flashed on the screen at number 4, the audience cheered. Ridder admitted later, “I would certainly say that the family, parents and siblings cheered a lot more than we did. We were happy to get in there, but we were just ready to play football. “

Fickell stood at the far end of the room, watching and feeling particularly pleased. In the room around him, he has many sixth-year students determined they’ll be back in another year – taking advantage of an extra season as COVID-19 turns 2020 into a grueling season. the hardest they’ve ever experienced.

He saw Ridder, who was gathering with quarterback coach/passing game coordinator Gino Guidugli as the two talked about ticking off each box on the checklist Ridder made for himself when he decided to go back. No one knows Guidugli helped build the Cincinnati program during his time as a full-back from 2001 to 2004.

He saw Bryant and Myjai Sanders, is also a tool to help them get back to school. “This is part of the reason I came back,” says Bryant. “Not just for opportunities like this, but to be a leader. When me and the likes of Des and Myjai leave, we want to be remembered as great leaders.”

Perhaps they will be remembered more than that.

When Ridder decided whether or not to come back, he said the thought of a playoff spot crossed his mind.

“But back then, ‘OK, we got to the 6th of the New Year last year, so if that’s what’s going to happen and they don’t put us in, then we’ll win the New Year’s Sixth,'” said Ridder .

“Now is the playoffs. Now is to win them all.” Behind the scenes for the 48 hours that made the history of Cincinnati football

Jake Nichol

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