About 1,200 roaring fans filled into Fifth Third Arena on a late Saturday afternoon during the Christmas season. The UC band played. The cheerleaders screams echoed off the rafters. Streams of cameras focused on the C-Paw logo.
The chants began from the second the UC administration rolled into the building.
"Tommy T! Tommy T! Tommy T!"
All this for the introduction of a new football coach.
These press conferences have happened before. They've taken place in the ballrooms of hotels and been filled with more skepticism than fanfare. Saturday's introduction of Tommy Tuberville felt as much like those as Nippert Stadium feels like Sunday morning at the pee-wee fields.
This was different. This was excitement personified. This wasn't how UC has came off in the past. This was bigtime. This was an atmosphere as big as this home-run hire.
Whit Babcock stated Friday he didn't care about winning the press conference, he preferred to win games between September and January. Well, regardless, of what occurs in August, Babcock just won the press conference. To be fair, he didn't just win it, he beat it into submission like Southeast Missouri State.
As UC embarks on a journey to ascend to the center stage of whatever awaits in the uncertain future of realignment and renovations, it set forth a message that this program belongs in the conversation with the best NCAA football has to offer.
"I want to be the leader that helps this university go to the next level," Tuberville said. "I wanted to help Bearcat Nation take the next step forward."
The first giant leap occurred before he'd given one pregame speech.
But this day, this hire would be about more than pomp and circumstance. This would be about perception becoming reality. This would be about a program leaving adversity in the rear view mirror and running it over with a Texas-sized tank.
Approximately 30 hours from the moment Butch Jones informed his team he ditched Cheer Cincinnati for Rocky Top, Babcock emerged with the 2004 AP Coach of the Year in tow. Statement made. Not only did UC football not die with the departure of its latest leader, before the weekend ended it emerged with an injection of momentum stronger than before. Page turned.
His board of trustees did a double take when he approached them with the possibility of snagging a coach of Turberville's pedigree.
"I can see why they had that thought," Babcock said of the coach who ranked No. 1 on his list of candidates. "Fortunately we had one go our way."
The hiring of an accomplished coach like Tuberville shakes the standard around UC football. Don't like revolving door? Don't like three-and-out system? Change the hiring mentality. Think different.
None of this means Tuberville will be a long-term answer in Clifton. His nine-year run in Auburn came bookended by three-year stints at Ole Miss and now Texas Tech. In college coaching, loyalty and predictability come to a program as often as Heisman Trophy winners. There are no guarantees, but if you desire a different result take a different approach.
In the opening moments of his first conversation with Turberville, Babcock would be hit over the head with the advantage of bucking the trend.
"He said if I come there to be your football coach, I'll stay," Babcock said. "I didn't prompt it. And I know there's no guarantees. But I was really happy to hear that. I said we can do it together."
Every coach previously hired at UC showed up with an agenda and asterisk. They looked to make a name for themselves and none proved they could win on a major stage yet. Whether Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly or Butch Jones, the up-and-coming label attached to their red ties. Tuberville won at the highest level imaginable. He led Auburn to an undefeated 13-0 season in 2004. He was twice the SEC Coach of the Year. He won five SEC West titles.
No hire in UC history arrives with better credentials.
Babcock calls Tuberville one of the most laid-back CEO-type coaches he's come across, but with fire for football and reputation for selling a program. His reputation as an offensive wizard follows him and that was the type of coach the search committee coveted. His passing offense at Tech ranked second in the country in yards passing per game and in the top 20 in total offense.
Season ticket sales jumped 50 percent at Tech during Tuberville's time there.
Coaches with Tuberville's accomplishments don't ditch the Big 12 for Cincinnati, though, unless the expectations of conference stability were satisfied. College football can't be predicted from one day to the next, a fact everyone should know by now, but UC looks prime to be at the forefront of whatever the next dominoes will be. Tuberville essentially staked his career on it.
"I would not be here today if these two guys didn't say they want to give you every possible avenue to have the most success," Tuberville said.
Babcock left an impression on all he crossed paths with since arriving at UC. A renewed sense of enthusiasm and hope flowed through the building. Athletic Directors are rarely judged by energy and ideas, though, in the eyes of the public most will be judged by their hires within the world of football and basketball. For those who rarely step inside the walls of the Lindner Center, the last two days provided the most public insight into what Babcock brings.
As the he took the podium Saturday, the chants of his name began to ring out.
"Whit! Whit! Whit!"
It was a sound he'd never heard before and he couldn't help but crack a smile even through the eyes of a man with no more than four or five hours of sleep any night since Rutgers left for the B1G.
That stage stood far from his comfort zone.
"I'd rather be in the background, I really would," he said.
The last few days he needed to step to the forefront. And he did so in as big of a way possible. He flipped adversity into enthusiasm and re-energized a fan base frustrated by the cycle of revolving coaches. There may have been better 30-hour periods after the loss of a coach, but you'll have a hard time finding any.
After the band cleared out, the fans filtered to the concourses, cameras disappeared and cheerleaders changed into street clothes, Babcock stood, worn down by the process but beaming with pride over the events of a "great day to be a Bearcat."
And dying to spend a quiet night with his family.
"I try to enjoy the days that are fun because the challenging days will beat on you a little bit," he said. "When we are doing well I want our guys up front, but yesterday, that's the time you got to step up and do it. I'd much rather be in the background. And I'm quite content to go back to doing that if y'all will let me."
Go ahead, Whit. You've earned it.
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