The players were on board. They heard coach Brian Kelly's vision, did their part to implement it, and Cincinnati put together consecutive 10-win seasons and the school's first Big East championship.
Yet the sales job wasn't complete. Not until early last month, when Kelly made his long-term intentions known, did he believe the players could invest emotionally without hesitation.
"They clearly bought in to a level, but you get to that next level when they know you're going to be here and know, 'I don't have to be guarded with this next guy because he's not going to be here very long,'" said Kelly, who tonight will guide the Bearcats in the FedEx Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech. "They needed to know from me this is a place I wanted to be."
Cincinnati's supersonic ascent in two seasons under Kelly hadn't gone unnoticed. He was believed to be the front-runner to replace Philip Fulmer at Tennessee. Kelly also was linked to openings at Clemson and Washington.
Perhaps the juiciest rumor circulating was that a deal already was in place for Kelly to take over for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. Weis was never fired.
"You might get a little heartburn when other people are looking at your coach, but if they're doing that that means you're having success on the field," said Director of Athletics Mike Thomas, who in the same position at Akron watched Kelly take MAC rival Central Michigan from a 4-7 record in 2004 to a conference title two years later.
Kelly has spoken reverentially about Virginia Tech and its run of 16 consecutive bowls. At the crux of that success in Kelly's eyes: a coach in Frank Beamer who's been there 22 seasons and several assistants, including coordinators Bud Foster and Bryan Stinespring, who have remained on staff almost as long.
A product of tiny Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Kelly doesn't have direct links to big-time programs that might naturally lead to a departure. That wasn't the case with Bearcats predecessor Mark Dantonio, who had strong ties to Michigan State and took the head job there when it became available two seasons ago.
Kelly went from Assumption straight to Grand Valley State, a Division II program in Michigan, where he spent 17 seasons - the last 13 as head coach - before Central Michigan.
"It's important for me to stay and build our program," said Kelly, whose contract runs through 2012. "As you do that you gain more respect nationally because you've got continuity. When you have an open door and coaches come and go, it makes it hard to maintain that consistency. That's one element we'll be able to draw on."
The Bearcats' head coaching needs go beyond a capable Xs and Os guy. They require a front man to help the program take hold in what has been a pro sports and college basketball market.
Kelly's political background makes him well suited to the task. A political science major at Assumption, Kelly worked on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. His father was a municipal councilman and headed a household ravenous for all things politics.
Under Kelly, the season-ticket base has doubled and the average attendance at Nippert Stadium climbed from 20,373 in 2006 to 31,965.
"I'm better at getting out in front and giving the message," Kelly said. "It's a competitive market. You better be able to go out and tout your program or you're just going to be an afterthought."
That's no longer a problem with Cincinnati.
Kelly the key to Cincy's rise
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