There are two coaches I’d like you to meet.
The first is Coach A. In the last three seasons, Coach A has led his team to a 25-14 record and three bowl appearances.
Then there’s Coach B. He has not managed to win 10 games or more for his program in three years, something that had occurred five times in the six years before he was hired. He also has lost each bowl game he has coached in with his current program.
Spoiler alert. Coach A and Coach B are the same person. They are both Tommy Tuberville. I know, you’re stunned. I can hear the audible gasp reverberating through the internet.
When Tuberville resigned as head coach at Texas Tech and took the job at Cincinnati in December of 2012, he brought with him a recognizable name at the national level, a relationship with then athletic director Whit Babcock and a history coaching major college programs (Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas Tech). It was a change of pace from the previous three coaches UC hired. Mark Dantonio took his first FBS head coaching job ever with the Bearcats in 2004 and Brian Kelly and Butch Jones both took the helm after successful (if brief) runs with Central Michigan. Dantonio (Michigan State), Kelly (Notre Dame) and Jones (Tennessee), and even Babcock (Virginia Tech) have each gone on to higher profile jobs after bringing a new era of success to Bearcats football. Tuberville may be in danger of leaving as well, but for far different reasons.
As already discussed, Tuberville has had a winning record at UC and taken the Bearcats to bowl games in each of his three seasons. However, that has not really been enough, especially after 2015. Although last year’s 7-6 record extended the Bearcats’ streak of winning seasons to five, it marked just the second time in the last decade that UC has had fewer than eight wins. It also was just the third time in that same time the team has had fewer than nine. The 2015 collapse is compounded by the fact that Tuberville’s team went into the year with lofty expectations. Fair or unfair, UC was supposed to dominate the American Athletic Conference. Instead it got its bell rung before stumbling into the Hawaii Bowl where it was eviscerated by San Diego State. Tuberville may not be the sole culprit for the disappointing season, as he does not actually play on the field, but he is in charge of the people who do.
The last 10 years have allowed UC to swim in much more lucrative recruiting waters than it did in the first 10 years of the century, which hit a rather low point in 2008 with the No. 104 recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports. Just a few years later, in 2011, UC cracked the top 50 (No. 47) and remained in that neighborhood the following year (No. 51). Since then, the program’s recruiting success has been slipping.
In 2013, the Bearcats had the No. 63 class nationally and the No. 3 class in the AAC. In 2014, they were ranked No. 64 and No. 3, respectively. In 2015, they were ranked No. 68 nationally, but did have the best class in the AAC thanks to additions of Ross Trail and Kahlil Lewis, among others. The slide continued in 2016, as UC fell to No. 74 nationally and No. 6 in the AAC. Although the 2017 class is far from complete, UC is currently ranked No. 87 overall and No. 10 in the AAC, putting it in danger of once again falling short in the recruiting realm. Fair or unfair, that falls on Tuberville’s shoulders.
What makes the deteriorating results on the field and the recruiting trail more difficult to swallow is the fact that UC is trying to pitch itself to the Big 12. Taking out geographic fit, economic impact etc., trying to get into a conference attempting to elevate its football standing in the College Football Playoff era is a tough task if you are seemingly regressing as a program.
Entering 2016, UC is a team that is being treated as a bit of an afterthought. Just looking at its fellow members of the AAC, the Bearcats aren’t a dark horse playoff contender from the non-power five ranks like Houston or an up and coming program like Temple, USF, Navy and even UConn. They also aren’t a team about to hit rock bottom or trying to build from there. You can pretty much bank on the fact that they’ll win enough to make a bowl game. But that isn’t going to cut it for much longer.
For now, Tuberville appears safe. He signed a two-year extension with UC in April, which would keep him in place as head coach until 2019. However, the Bearcats have big football dreams, as its Big 12 bid illustrates. If Tuberville doesn’t show that he can deliver on those plans this year, or at least during the next few, UC will find someone who can.