clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Opportunities and Challenges Abound For Cincinnati's New Athletic Director

On Thursday, a couple of hours before the Bearcats tipped off against UConn Santa Ono made the announcement that Mike Bohn would be the new Athletic Director for the University of Cincinnati. The move sent overwhelmingly positive shockwaves through Bearcat Nation, and it should. Mike Bohn is an excellent choice to expand on the momentum of the Whit Babcock era.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

By now we all know the basics of the Mike Bohn story. He was a Boulder kid who went away for college to play football and baseball at Kansas. Afterwards he went to Ohio University to get his post graduate degree. His first job in the business was at Air Force as an associate AD, then it was onto a brief stop at the College Football Association. From there he made a few more stops at Colorado State, Idaho, and San Diego State earning glowing reviews in the process before coming home to Colorado.

The start of his term at Colorado was consumed by the aftermath of Gary Barnett scandal. The start of that scandal is what opened the Colorado job to Bohn in the first place. The state of affairs when Bohn took the job don't make for light reading. He was tasked with changing the culture, not just of the football program, but of the department as a whole. Bohn was able to change the standards of academics and behaviour for the athletes at Colorado, and that will ultimately be a big part of his legacy in the Rocky Mountain State.

The flip side of that is that there are many Colorado fans who can point to Bohn's tenure as the time of the great death spiral of the Buffs football program. In some ways that is disingenuous, the fall came before Bohn took the job as the team produced steadily diminishing returns during the late years of Barnett. Charges that Bohn failed to arrest the freefall are probably more accurate. For what its worth Barnett was headed for the firing squad for his on field performance, the disintegration of law and order off the field sealed that fate. Bohn fired Barnett, and in doing so he effectively ended the the reign of Bill McCartney, the best coach in CU history.

The first big decision of Bohn's tenure was figuring out who could replace Barnett. In replacing the outgoing regime Bohn needed someone who could change the culture of the football program, get the fans behind the change and produce on field results.

At the time the brightest shooting stars in college football were Dan Hawkins and Rich Rodriguez, Bohn targeted Hawkins. Conventional wisdom at the time was that Hawkins was a perfect fit for Colorado. The model for succeeding at Boise and CU are very similar. With next to no local recruiting base the majority of players had to come from outside the state, in Southern California and Texas most of all. Additionally Hawkins also has a very unique outlook and approach to football. At the time everyone said that Colorado needed and change of culture, and that was what Hawkins intended to give the Buffalos. Only problem is that it didn't take.

Hawkins never had a winning season, made a solitary bowl trip and went 3 of 16 in match ups with ranked teams and delivered an unforgettable rant which will probably outlive Hawkins relevance on a scale of decades. Upon firing Hawkins Bohn had yet another big decision before him, who to replace Hawkins with.

The man he eventually settled on was distinctly of the old guard, Jon Embree, a former Colorado player and later coach under McCartney. Embree was a Colorado guy through and through, which is why he had popular support from fans and former players alike. He filled a staff of former Colorado players, almost exclusively.

"Then there was a huge push to want a Buff. We felt excited about bringing in some Buffs that had some wonderful coaching experience and connections and we quickly saw that wasn't going to work. We made the tough decision; I made the recommendation to move there. I get that. A.D.'s are judged by the coaches they hire."

The Embree era was an unmitigated disaster. There is not other way to put it, that is a harsh judgement on Bohn and the department under his watch. But the facts are the facts, and they aren't in his favor. For many CU fans that is as far as it went. Bohn failed the football program, and thus he failed.

But its not that simple. As the football program flailed about Bohn revived the long dormant Colorado basketball program by hiring a little known coach from tiny Northern Colorado, Tad Boyle. The hire was a massive home run. Boyle has posted three 20 win seasons in his first three years on the job, is in good shape for a 4th this season and won the schools first conference title in 41 years.

Bohn guided the Buffs transition to the PAC 12, increased fundraising, expanded the fan base and turned around the Buffalo's flagging academics among the student athletes. Bohn was good on the day to day stuff that goes on behind the scenes, but had some high profile misfires with the football program.

Bohn rightly perceived what the grounds for his judgement would be. That is why many assumed that if Bohn could survive the end of the Embree era he would be there for a while. The Buffs had massive capital improvements on the way, with fundraising already in process. He had indeed survived the end of Embree, and wound up hiring Mike MacIntyre after missing on Butch Jones (among others). It all looked like Bohn was set to be there for a long time, but then he wasn't. The end of Bohn is neatly summed up in a single tweet.

The official language from the Colorado University brass about what they want, and correspondingly that Mike Bohn didn't provide was stated thusly.

DiStefano said the university will be seeking "a dynamic leader" as athletic director - someone who, he said, "can focus on our key goals of fundraising, building a dynamic organization, and creating long-term sustainability in the athletics mission."

Essentially Bohn was fired because he displayed insufficient leadership from the AD's desk, and didn't do enough to raise fundraising to a level allowing Colorado to compete in the PAC 12. Nevermind that fund raising under his watch reached an all time high in 2012. That Bohn was beloved by studentsboosters, fans, insiders and athletes alike makes the decision to let him go all the more puzzling, but let go he was.

Now Bohn comes to Cincinnati eight months after being unceremoniously let go by Colorado. As stated in the brief post about his hiring on Thursday Bohn really does check a lot of the boxes that the Bearcats require with this position. He has fundraising experience, has managed a conference transition, and perhaps best of all he has run a major athletic department before, something that only Bob Goin had done before him. For all those reasons's Bohn is a good move for Santa Ono to make. It is yet another signal to the powers at be that the Bearcats are serious about competing at the highest level.

Bohn himself did not shy away from that line of thought in his own opening press conference. Unfortunately the landscape is what it is. The ACC has no interest in expanding unless they can convince Notre Dame to become a member in full standing of the conference, that's obviously not happening.

The Big 12 is the conference that probably needs to be proactive in regards to expansion, but there is major opposition to expansion in the centers of power (read: Austin). The Big 12 won't expand unless they are sure that the incoming institutions won't shorten the cut of the television contract for the remaining members. There is a good argument to be made that a UC schedule which would theoretically include annual match ups in football with West Virginia and some combination of Texas/OKlahoma/Oklahoma State and basketball match ups with Kansas would meet that inane criteria. Bohn and Santa Ono are capable of making that argument convincingly, its just a matter of getting the Big 12 powers that be in a position where they can hear it. That seems years away, if it ever comes.

The bottom line of expansion is this. At this point in time the Bearcats have the best resume of any of the pieces left on the board, big media market, expands geographic footprint, good academics, huge endowment, big alumni base, access to new and fertile recruiting grounds, demonstrated history of success in the two revenue sports, and a commitment to competing at that level. The only other school on the board who can even come close to checking all those boxes is BYU, and they are a notch below UC in the grand scheme of things. What Mike Bohn is tasked with is keeping the Bearcats in pole position. Some of those things are immutable and won't change much.

Cincinnati is one of the few areas in Ohio that is growing, both in population and economic terms and as such will always provide a large and attractive media market to tap. Likewise UC itself shows few signs of slowing its enrollment growth or ascent up the university rankings. Those are things that can only help the Bearcats C.V., but are ultimately beyond the control for Bohn.

What he can do is continue the Bearcats run of success in football and basketball. Tommy Tuberville is settled and wants to be here for a while, likewise Mick Cronin has shown no interest in jumping ship anytime soon. As long as both men are around the Bearcats will be an annual threat for the group of 5 spot in the access bowls, and a perennial NCAA tournament team.

What Bohn must do is capitalize on the momentum from the revenue sports to build the Bearcats fan base. At the same time he has to get more people to donate more money to UC. As it is currently Cincinnati is barely outside the top 50 in revenue's, and has one of the lowest contribution rates among the schools the Bearcats are trying to compete with.

Bohn has to expand that base of donations. He will have an excellent tool to do just that in New Nippert with its premium seating tied to annual donations. Even that won't be quite enough to fund annual top 25 teams in football and basketball. Bohn has to get the fundraising arm of the athletic department to perform at a higher level. If he could get Fifth Third renovated, or get someone else to renovate US Bank for the Bearcats it would be fantastic. That is the lifeblood of UC in this period.

The Bearcats can not count on the AAC to provide any meaningful contributions to the Bearcats revenues, the TV contract pays out a fraction of what the Big East deal did, and even that deal was laughable compared to those in the power five conferences. That shortfall has to be made up by donors to keep the Bearcats nationally relevant until the day the golden parachute descends. That is ultimately how Mike Bohn should be judged.