Linebacker Greg Blair knew Butch Jones might leave. Like most every Bearcats football player, he stayed locked into every news cycle twist and refreshed his Twitter feed. He prepared for the possibilities.
As Jones traded red and black for orange, Blair lacked surprise. The lesson was learned: College football is a business. Yet, in the week following Jones' departure when both coordinators and three more assistants were poached to Tennessee two weeks before the Belk Bowl, Blair learned just how dirty business can be.
"That kind of hit us hard and had ... a bitter taste in our mouth," Blair said. "We didn't know they was going to do us like that."
But, they most certainly did. And as practices were held inside the bubble this week, they were notable mostly for how quiet they were. Jones screams into the microphone were gone along with most everyone else. Interim coach Steve Stripling ran a quiet, all-business approach with a stretched collection of new coaches manned a skeleton crew.
The story of Team 125 no longer belongs to coaches, though. Not that it ever did. More than ever, Team 125 is about the players wearing the Cincinnati jersey. Once the news broke the players were orphaned by their "Bearcat Family" the team realized what family really means. Amid adversity, they called a players only team meeting to hash out their feelings.
The residing theme to leave that meeting was these guys only owned two things: Each other and the Belk Bowl. This band of brothers control nothing, they know that better than ever now. So, you better believe they will latch onto the one piece of this season still in their control as if fighting for their last breath.
"It just brought us together more than ever because we know if we all start to branch out and doing our own thing we'll lose," Blair said. "That's all our focus is on, one game, we can only control what's ahead of us. We can't control whose coming in and what coaches is going to coach us, we just got to worry about the Belk Bowl on the 27th."
Had Jones and his staff stayed, no way focus this driven and intent would be bestowed on the Dec. 27. The narrative would involve over-looking a struggling Duke team and building a foundation for next season.
Instead, this bowl game now symbolizes something more, something bigger, at least for these players. The Belk Bowl symbolizes one final hurrah, one final opportunity for these players to stamp their mark. More importantly, one final chance to prove this overachieving run was never about the coaches, rather, the accomplishments were about these teammates.
The Belk Bowl: One final, united celebration of a year of blood, sweat and touchdowns.
"Absolutely," said C Dan Sprague. "Looking back a couple years ago when Coach (Brian) Kelly left we kind of went our separate ways and said screw it we are just going to go have fun and we got embarrassed. Those of us who have been through that we pull together and play for each other. We love the coaches who have stayed but they will probably be gone so we play for each other and send the seniors out the right way."
With OC Mike Bajakian and DC Jon Jancek gone, WR coach T.J. Weist will call the offensive plays and Stripling will call the defense. Offensive line coach Don Mahoney, TE coach Mark Elder and strength coach Dave Lawson are already in Tennessee with Stripling on his way out after this game.
Sprague received instruction from respected TE coach Dave Johnson for the first time in his career. Johnson worked with edge linemen but never on the interior. Blair will attempt to keep continuity listening to a new voice sending in calls to the middle linebacker. Surrounded by chaos, only one piece of continuity exists.
"We all we got right now," Blair said. "We try to be a player-driven team. Now all the players are coming together as one. We all met with each other and said what we had to say. We all said that we have to come together more than ever right now. Our goal is to beat Duke, get 10 wins, become an elite group with 10-win seasons because that don't come by very often. Our biggest goal is just to win a game. We're all good. We will win this game."
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