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THE GHOST OF BANQUETS PAST

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      "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."


      Rarely do I quote Charles Dickens, in fact never. However, the quote above pretty much sums up UC's football banquet from LAST YEAR at the Westin.

      A 12-0 team was going to a BCS bowl, but was losing it's coach. A man that could've had his face carved in any of the seven hills around town and reaped the rewards of being leader of a small kingdom, opted to head for riches and great expectations elsewhere.

      A team that could've spun quite a tale, instead spun out of control, out of contention and out of mind. Black became white and "Next Man In" became "every man for himself".

      The team coached by the Notre Dame chief was handed to Buffalo's new coach, while assistants in negotiations with both schools were distracted away from the business at hand. Obviously, recruiting then became a literal three-ring circus.

      This is what Butch Jones had to inherit and watch from the Superdome last year as the "Coach-elect" and this was the atmosphere that began at the aforementioned "celebration banquet" downtown in December 2009.

      Fast forward a year and this season's subdued ceremony was held at the Tangeman Center (significantly cheaper than the Westin). There was no Cincinnati Police escort for the head coach as Butch Jones entered an elevator near me with one of his sons and some assistants.

      Unlike last year, when the coach I thought I knew blew past me without eye contact and several "Secret Service wanna-bes", Coach Jones greeted me kindly.

      A year ago, players were being texted or were hearing various reports of their coach leaving with many reacting angrily before and after the "show". On this night, players leisurely walked from their surrounding residences unimpeded free and open to speak to anyone.

      While not part of the official list, I was allowed this year to walk in and speak to most any player I wanted to along with several of the guests who know me from my past associations with the program. Heck, I was even offered a hors devour, even though I wasn't wearing a recognized name tag (I politely declined).

      Last December, as Brian Kelly told his players he was leaving for Notre Dame (something they knew by modern technology anyway) in one room, I was denied access to a public ballroom as the Irishman walked across the hall to pretend like nothing was going on during ESPN's Home Depot Award Show.

      Thus, a strange banquet led to a strange year. 10-3, 11-3 and 12-1 begat 4-8. While a powerful offense appeared at times, it was minus key returners on the line and minus receivers counted on in the preseason.

      Defensively, seniors were lost and not replaced with like talent. Recruiting-wise, a fair assumption would be that it came to a grinding halt at some time during the previous administration. Those are the realities, not the excuses.

      In all reality though, no one really expected a losing season and that's what the entire program has had to come to grips with as they close out the 2010 chapter of Bearcat football, anticipating a move on to a more promising phase.

      "It's been kind of a bizarre year but we're happy to know our coaches are coming back next year," said quarterback Zach Collaros upon entering the Great Hall area of TUC. Despite an off year by his standards, Collaros was named All Big East first team.

      Collaros is part of a very eager group of soon-to-be seniors ready to "right the ship". The sooner, the better.

      "We've already had guys in the weight room a day after the game," noted Collaros. "People can't stop talking about next year. The seniors, myself and the other guys are very anxious to get this team and have it be our team."

      Coach Butch Jones echoed those sentiments shortly afterward to a much smaller group of media than was gathered a year ago for Kelly's "exit stage left".

      "The future's extremely bright for this football program," said Jones.

      As Collaros mentioned, and as Jones implied in his Pitt post-game press conference, the work on 2011 began immediately. Though actual supervised physical work is restricted, the groundwork is being laid and the process is taking shape for a determined group of returning Bearcats.

      "Very determined," added Jones. "This week we were off for finals but my office was full everyday. Our kids are very hungry and we're excited to get back after it January 2nd."

      Making things a little easier will be the Jefferson Avenue Sports Complex that now greets you as you enter campus for winter athletic gatherings. While it unfortunately won't get used for bowl preparation, it will become a busy venue in a few weeks.

      "That's going to pay big dividends for us," said Jones. "Last year, because of the weather and the elements, we weren't able to get outside. I thought that really slowed our progress down. Now, we can go inside and practice everything and work on skills. It's all about your skill-set and refining your craft."

      Also recognizing the difference in banquets and putting it all into perspective was departing senior John Goebel. Like fellow senior Ben Guidugli, this is his first December NOT in bowl practice.

      "Last year we came in here ranked #3 in the country, this year we're not going to a bowl game," said Goebel. "At the same time, it's still great to see all of my teammates."

      "Last year's banquet was real hectic," added fellow running back Isaiah Pead.

      Both players did add though that things should be on the upswing for UC fans.

      "He (Jones) knows what to expect next year and he knows the players better," said Goebel. "I think the team will have a great season next year, the Big East better watch out for the Bearcats."

      "The season's gone, we'll never get that season back," said Pead. "We're looking forward to next year--start working to get back where we were, not where we're at. Guys leave, guys come in, that's part of football. It goes on all around the country. The young guys have got to step up and the guys that are coming back need to step up too...immediately! We need to roll our sleeves up and play football like we know how to."

      A lot of that comes in correcting mental errors which then lead to physical errors. Many of those errors led to points by the opposition this season and contributed directly to the losing record.

      Much of that was the problem during UC's month-long run without a win from mid-October to almost late November. That span included two home losses to USF and Syracuse and the turnover-prone defeat at West Virginia.

      Turnovers make "winnable" games "winnable" for the other team. Looking at the season, you could make an argument that UC could've been no worse than 6-6 and possibly 8-4 had certain errors not occurred or led to tremendous momentum swings in the game.

      At any rate, the corrections are known and the framework is in place to produce better results next year and in seasons beyond. While recruiting never stops, you can bet many cell minutes have been burned up since the Pitt game ended on December 4th.

      "I'm not allowed to comment publicly until signing day but I think we're in the midst of a putting together a good class," said Coach Jones. "Recruiting's a foundation. We're recruiting for our second and third years down the road, that's when your recruits really materialize. We're also looking at some junior college players."

      At the very least, there's one solid message being sold to UC recruits this December as opposed to the complicated, non-unified efforts that last December's turn of events brought about. At best, Jones can completely change the mindset of those on board and can enhance them with players that match his intensity and drive.

      That all can only result in better records, better bowls and bigger and better banquets.

    

       (For video interviews from my handheld Blackberry with Coach Jones, John Goebel and Isaiah Pead feel free to click here.   Sure, it's not the best camera work, but it gives you a taste of Thursday night's event.)

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