In the last 20 years, the Cincinnati Bearcats have welcomed in four new head coaches, with Rick Minter a holdover after taking over in 1994. This year, they will welcome a fifth in Luke Fickell. Expectations are already bloated for Fickell, even as he takes over a roster that managed just a 4-8 record last season while ranking second to last in the American Athletic Conference in scoring offense. That’s not the type of cupboard that the last four head coaches have walked into, but there are still some lessons to be learned from looking at their first years at the helm. Let’s run through them.
First year: 2004
Predecessor: Rick Minter
Win differential: +2
Minter coached at UC for a lot longer than most would have liked, even if he did make three-straight bowl games from 2000 to 2002. Looking back, UC fans may wish Dantonio coached longer than he did considering his success at Michigan State. Dantonio did a solid job in his first season at UC, even if he didn’t stick.
After a middling 5-7 mark in 2003, Dantonio pushed the Bearcts back to the postseason, winning seven games as a first-year head coach. Those victories included an upset of then No. 21 SMU and a 32-14 triumph over Marshall in the Forth Worth Bowl.
Dantonio has gone on to be a defensive wizard at Michigan State, but in that first season he led a pretty nice offense. He guided Gino Guidugli during his breakout season and also featured skill players like Hannibal Thomas and Richard Hall, doing more with them than Minter, who brought each player to the team.
First year: 2007
Predecessor: Mark Dantonio
Win differential: +3
That +3 up there is based on a technicality. Kelly was brought on as the head coach after Dantonio left for Michigan State before the Bearcats played in the 2006 Independence Bowl. UC won that bowl game against Western Michigan, earning Kelly, the former head coach at Central Michigan, his first win as the head man for the red and black.
In his first full year as head coach, Kelly kept the wins rolling, piling up 10 and leading UC to its first AP ranking since 1976. He also led the way to the Bearcats’ second-straight bowl win in his first year coaching them. Now that is impressive and mildly confusing to read.
Kelly would continue doing great things for the Bearcats, increasing the team’s win total in each of the next two years, including the magical 2009 season when UC went 12-0 in the regular season, won the Big East championship and reached its highest AP ranking in program history (No. 4). Of course, Kelly and UC didn’t part ways all that well, with Kelly taking the job at Notre Dame and declining to coach the team in the Sugar Bowl, where the Bearcats were pounded 51-24 by Florida.
First year: 2010
Predecessor: Brian Kelly
Win differential: -4
UC went back to the Central Michigan well to pluck Jones. Unlike Kelly, Jones did not coach until his actual first full year. What a cavalier approach. Unfortunately, Jones did not have success in common with Kelly, at least in the first year. Fresh off the best season in school history, the Bearcats went just 4-8 in Jones’ first season. That poor record came despite a No. 1 ranking in scoring and total offense for the Bearcats in the Big East.
Jones did have something else in common with Kelly besides the fact that both came from CMU. They both left UC after three seasons, as Jones went on to take the head gig at Tennessee after rebounding to win back-to-back bowl games in his final two seasons with the Bearcats.
First year: 2013
Predecessor: Butch Jones
Win differential: -1
We all know how it ended but it didn’t start so badly. Granted, Tuberville left Texas Tech in a less than ideal way and took over a roster mainly built by Jones, but he guided UC to another strong season in his first year on campus. Powered by the defensive magic of Greg Blair, Nick Temple and Silverberry Mouhon, the Bearcats won nine games for the third-straight season and fifth time in six years before bowing out 39-17 to North Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Unlike the other guys on this list, Tuberville did not lift or even keep things steady, as the Bearcats went 9-4, 7-6 and finally an uninspiring 4-8 before he
was going to be fired resigned.
I’m expecting a small turnaround for Fickell in his first season, even if its just a one-win improvement. That will be enough to count it as a success, especially if he is building a foundation like Kelly and Jones rather than a house of sand like Tuberville. That’s the measuring stick that will ultimately matter, but for his first season, these are the seasons that Fickell’s first will be compared to.