Dec. 22, 2009
By Michael Perry
No fear. No awe. That's what Kerry Coombs sees from the University of Cincinnati players.
The Bearcats' defensive backs coach and associate head coach is helping the team prepare for its New Year's Day matchup with Florida in the Sugar Bowl. It is UC's second straight BCS bowl appearance, and Coombs says there is a noticeable difference from a year ago.
"I think we're much better suited this time than we were the last time because we were star-struck last time," Coombs says. "I believe our players and coaches have a much better feel for what the BCS involves. We've tried to make sure that our preparation is very solid prior to going to New Orleans so we're down there sharpening the sword instead of installing new things.
"I feel very good about the change in the way we're preparing this time over last time. We didn't tackle much (in practice) last time; we've done a lot of that. I think we learned a lot of lessons from the last game."
Virginia Tech easily handled Cincinnati 20-7 in last season's Orange Bowl. UC struck first and led 7-0 less than two minutes into the game. But the Hokies dominated the rest of the way, finishing with 398 yards of total offense and holding the ball 19 minutes more than the Bearcats.
This year, UC is preparing to face the defending national champion Florida Gators and quarterback Tim Tebow, a former Heisman Trophy winner who threw for 2,413 yards and rushed for 1,026 yards this season. He accounted for 31 touchdowns.
"It is a great challenge," Coombs says. "We'll take the field in the Sugar Bowl, with all that history and tradition, against what 20 years from now may be regarded as the greatest college football player of all time. And what a great opportunity for us. I think our kids are looking at it that way. I don't think they're awestruck. I know this - they're not afraid one bit. They're just looking forward to playing."
Coombs says preparing for the Gators is the same as getting ready for all opponents, just with more practice. "You don't have time to pause and think about how good they are," he says.
While UC's high-powered offense attracts a lot of attention, the defense may very well be the key to this game. The Bearcats have allowed 44 (Pittsburgh), 36 (Illinois), 21 (West Virginia) and 45 points (Connecticut) in the last four games - a 36.5 average.
That's after allowing an average of just 12.9 points over the first eight games.
"When you look at the points that we've allowed ... it's been the result of an individual player's breakdown on a certain play or the function of the defense having the right call," Coombs says. "It's not been, boy, we've got 11 guys who have gotten bad all of a sudden. We played great defense for a large part of the year.
"The great thing about our defense is they've played well enough to win. They fight and scratch and claw. If you look at where we were when it was 31-10 to winning that game at Pittsburgh, it was the defense that brought the team back. That's something those kids are very encouraged by. They're really excited and eager to play on this stage. They've heard the talk and they will be prepared."
Since the thrilling victory over Pittsburgh on Dec. 5 that gave UC the Big East title, the program has gone through unprecedented upheaval.
Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame. Offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn was named interim coach for the Sugar Bowl. Butch Jones from Central Michigan was named UC's new head coach. And Quinn accepted the job at Buffalo's head coach while remaining to coach the Sugar Bowl.
Crazy times, for sure.
One constant is Coombs, the former Colerain High School coach who was Jones' first hire for his new staff. Coombs is a Cincinnati guy who wants to be in town and with the Bearcats.
"I'm thrilled at my choice," he says of staying with UC. "I think everybody is going to come out of this thing in a great situation one way or another. These are great men who are great coaches and wherever they are coaching they're going to be successful.
"I love Brian Kelly and I will always be in Brian Kelly's debt because he hired me at the University of Cincinnati when he hadn't even met me before. He's a great coach. Brian is going to be very, very successful at Notre Dame. At the same time, this is the University of Cincinnati, and I am very excited to be here. I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with Butch and the other coaches who will be here, as well."
Jones announced the hiring of Coombs at his introductory press conference. Coombs says the two have known each other for years and used to go head-to-head at a University of Michigan summer camp when Coombs coached defensive backs and Jones wide receivers.
"His style would be a little bit more laid-back (than Kelly) on the interpersonal level," Coombs says. "He will be very intense at practice and at games. In casual conversation he's relaxed. I think he's confident. He feels very good about the situation that's found himself in. I think he's excited about the future.
"He's inquisitive. He wants to know everything there is to know about the team, the players, the recruiting. We haven't even gotten to the city yet. That's coming after we get through this, and that will be a whole nother learning curve for him. The town, the team and the university - everybody is going to be attracted to Butch.
While Jones is not coaching UC in its bowl game and is doing his best to maintain a low profile during preparations for New Orleans, he is already hard at work on the Bearcats' behalf.
"He's been very cognisant of the process that we're going through," Coombs says. "He's not trying to impose himself on that at all, which I think everybody appreciates. At the same time, he's here. He's working on recruiting. He met with a lot of our committed kids over the weekend. And that was good because he was received very well by them. So he's hard at work, but he's working in the future. He's allowing these players and this coaching staff to finish the job, which I think is admirable on all fronts. He wants it to be that way, and I give him credit for that. It's a tough situation for everybody.
"I admire the way everybody is preparing and focusing and working day in and day out. The kids, the coaches, we're just doing our business. That's a really admirable thing to watch."