Dec. 25, 2008
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Stuck in the center of the Cincinnati Bearcats' huddle to receive the Big East championship trophy, defensive end Connor Barwin reached up and took hold of the memento that's topped by a golden football.
In many ways, it was the perfect hand-off.
No one has played a more intimate role in Cincinnati's transition from basketball powerhouse to Orange Bowl team. The 12th-ranked Bearcats (11-2) won their first Big East title this season with Barwin leading the charge on defense. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound senior led the league with 13 sacks in his first season after switching from tight end.
But, that's just part of the story.
A high school basketball star, Barwin also helped the Bearcats through some of their darkest times on the court, volunteering to play power forward for two seasons during the ugly transition after coach Bob Huggins was ousted.
"He is the coach's dream," basketball coach Mick Cronin said. "He's a throwback. Guys used to play two sports, and it was all about winning, it wasn't about making the NFL or the NBA or money. It was just being happy to be playing. He'd play three sports if you'd let him."
Although he was a two-sport start at Jesuit High in Detroit, he came to Cincinnati to follow the more promising path -- football. When he arrived on campus before the start of the 2005-06 season, the school was known for its streak of 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances under Huggins, who was feuding with the university president.
Then, Huggins was gone. A few months later, interim coach Andy Kennedy was looking for help for his depleted roster and contacted some football players who had basketball backgrounds.
Barwin, a freshman, decided to walk on.
After only three practices, he was on the bench for a game against Syracuse. Before halftime, he was at the free-throw line.
"I never thought I'd play," Barwin said. "Coach Kennedy walked down the bench and looked at me and kind of smiled and said, 'You ready?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I guess I'm ready. Not really. I don't know any of the plays. Whatever."'
He didn't even have his name on the back of his No. 51 uniform when he reported to the scorer's table and drew an ovation from the crowd. Fifty-two seconds later, he got fouled while chasing a loose ball, went to the free-throw line and missed. When he got fouled again and made both free throws, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
"I don't think I've ever been more nervous on a free throw than I was on that (first) one," he said. "But like two trips down the court, I got fouled again and made the next two free throws. It was crazy."
Barwin played in 18 games as a freshman, averaging 9.9 minutes. He scored 18 points and led the team in rebounds with nine in its final game.
Sophomore year, he did it again, playing in 23 games to help Cronin get through his first season. Barwin averaged 10 minutes and scored a total of 27 points.
"He's just the ultimate winner," Cronin said. "If you coached all guys with his attitude, coaching would be the greatest profession in the world."
Football coach Brian Kelly got his chance to learn about Barwin the last two seasons. As a tight end, Barwin caught 31 passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns last year, when Cincinnati won 10 games and finished the season with a No. 17 ranking.
Kelly decided to move Barwin to defense for his senior season, allowing him to use his speed and size in a different way. Once he made his reasons clear, Barwin went along and excelled, leading a pass rush that topped the Big East with 35 sacks.
"I think the most amazing part of this is that I've been a head coach for 18 years, and I don't think I've ever seen a guy go from one position to defense and get voted all-conference in his first year playing the position as a senior," Kelly said.
When the Bearcats play No. 21 Virginia Tech (9-4) on New Year's Day, Barwin's two-sport odyssey will be complete.
"If Huggins hadn't been fired, if things had happened different, it was highly unlikely that I would have stepped foot on the basketball court here," Barwin said. "But things happened how they did, and it's been so much fun."