A week with Bearcats reveals Cincinnati's potential CFP rise, Luke Fickell's staying power and why Notre Dame game means so much

(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)
(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — On the night before the Cincinnati football program embarks on the biggest two-game stretch in school history, it has become clear amid a cluster of coaches at a hotel ballroom table that the Bearcats are off schedule.

This is notable because everything in head coach Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati football universe runs defiantly early. A 7:30 a.m. meeting begins at 7:23 without anyone walking in after. When defensive line coach Greg Scruggs came to interview at Cincinnati, he arrived 10 minutes early to take a bus to a scrimmage. It already left.

So with players filing in around 9 p.m. for their final snack before bed check the night before their game with Indiana on Sept. 18, the cramming of poor Nate Letton, an offensive graduate assistant, stood out. Letton set out for the final — and crucial — task of the Bearcats’ week of preparation for the Hoosiers. He needed to put together the gameday wristband for star quarterback Desmond Ridder.

Imagine a calculus course combined with an arts-and-crafts project — glue stick, lamination machine and paper cutter included — all to cram 180 plays onto essentially three index cards.

Indiana’s reputation as a prolific sign-stealing operation — a completely legal competitive advantage — forced the Bearcats to abandon their typical no-huddle offense and attempt to counter Indiana’s thievery by huddling. (The Bearcats identified the Hoosier sign-stealer and joked about putting the low-level staffer’s mug shot on a cardboard sideline sign with the caption: “I STEAL SIGNS.”)

Ranked No. 8 at the time, Cincinnati’s arrival in Bloomington promised the biggest non-conference crowd in more than three decades, a sign of the Bearcats’ generational evolution from homecoming chum to big-gate draw.

From there, the Bearcats head to Notre Dame on Saturday for what could be considered the biggest game in school history. If, of course, they topple a Big Ten opponent in front of an electric crowd buzzing from IU’s best season since 1967, finishing 2020 ranked No. 12.

The Indiana game looms as the first step to Cincinnati potentially scaling the steepest climb in all of college athletics — crashing into one of the four College Football Playoff spots from outside one of the sport’s five power conferences. How did Cincinnati position itself as the school with the best chance to defy the sport’s distinct barriers of class, finance and perception?

It starts with the pull of family.

A head coach, quarterback and many staff members sticking around at a place where countless have trampolined through. There’s Luke and Amy Fickell, with their six kids, ranging from Bearcat freshman offensive lineman Landon Fickell to twin first-graders Laykon and Lucian. (Daughter Luca, a high school junior, is taking an unofficial visit to Indiana volleyball while the Bearcats visit this weekend.)

Luke Fickell is the tough-love head coach who is more Roy Kent than Ted Lasso, more Saban in demeanor than Dabo. When Fickell arrived in 2017 and went 4-8 with the country’s No. 101 offense and No. 94 defense, few harbored CFP dreams.

He has gone 34-6 since, turning down Michigan State and a handful of SEC schools willing to pay him much more than his $3.4 million salary. “We’re not movers,” says Amy Fickell, as she and Luke have never lived full time out of Ohio.

FILE - Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell speaks with quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) prior to an NCAA college football game against Miami (Ohio) in Cincinnati, in this Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, file photo. Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell talks about the opportunity the No. 7 Bearcats have to impress the nation when they travel to South Bend, Indiana, to face No. 9 Notre Dame. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)
Head coach Luke Fickell and the Bearcats are ranked No. 7 heading into Saturday's showdown in South Bend against No. 9 Notre Dame. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)

Ridder stuck around too. With the star quarterback and his longtime girlfriend Claire Cornett expecting their first child right around the NFL draft last season, he chose one final college season over NFL forecasts as a potential fourth-round pick. He also chose the familiarity of Cincinnati, the proximity of he and Claire’s family 100 miles away in Louisville and the allure at one last crack at helping Cincinnati crash the establishment.

Ridder also chose the delightfully unrefined blend of teammates and coaches, a crew indicative of Cincinnati itself — both urban and country, filled with mullets and dreadlocks, and dressed up in both camo and Cuban link necklaces. The allure of that family tugged hard too.

This two-game stretch marks one of the most important windows in school history, as both games speak to the power of possibility. They come weeks after an invitation to the Big 12, which can change Cincinnati’s underdog paradigm. “You can win national championships,” UC athletic director John Cunningham told Yahoo Sports about the Big 12 addition. “There isn't any reason we can't do that here.”

Can Cincinnati speed up the timeline before joining the Big 12 in 2023? As the Bearcats prepared for Indiana, they gave Yahoo Sports full access for a week-long peek at just how they’re attempting to announce nationally what they’ve already become accustomed to doing within the program.

Cincinnati arrives early.

Sunday — Plan and a prayer to stay relevant in College Football Playoff

A few minutes before 9 p.m. on Sunday, Luke Fickell is wrapping up his workday in the defensive staff room with a recruiting pitch. He’s headed to 9 p.m. mass on campus, and he’s urging Landon Fickell to join him there.

He’s seated at the head of the table in the room, the windows of which are covered in 37 different sheets of printer paper showing Indiana’s varying offensive formations.

Fickell leaves defensive coordinator Mike Tressel and the crew of assistant coaches, quality control coaches and graduate assistants to continue dialing into Indiana’s offense. They spend about four hours Sunday night on Indiana’s 12 personnel grouping — one back and two tight ends — which make up about 8% of the Hoosier offense.

If Cincinnati is going to extend its regular-season winning streak to 12 games and keep alive its hopes for College Football Playoff consideration, every prayer and plan needs to coalesce. It’s not spoken about out loud, but everyone knows that these two games over three weeks can change everything.

It’s hard to overstate the variables that need to be in place for Cincinnati to even be in the conversation to become the first team from outside the Power Five to reach the playoff.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Desmond Ridder #9 of the Cincinnati Bearcats lines up under center during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against the Georgia Bulldogs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 1, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Cincinnati pushed Georgia hard but ultimately lost the Peach Bowl on NewYear's Day. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

The Bearcats needed the credibility of finishing last season undefeated in the regular season (9-0) and losing to Georgia in the final seconds of the Peach Bowl. The CFP committee created a glass ceiling for the Bearcats at No. 7 last year, when Cincinnati stalled out in the rankings before the committee began brand-shaming the Bearcats by twice dropping them below a pair of teams with multiple losses. Undefeated Cincinnati finished No. 9 in the final regular season CFP poll behind three-loss Florida and two-loss Oklahoma.

It shows how much needs to come together to traverse those final few spots to No. 4. First off, Fickell stuck around and Ridder returned, giving the Bearcats the hottest coach and the quarterback with the most wins in the sport. But it took so much more, as the finish and 16 returning starters allowed the Bearcats to start the year ranked No. 8.

A team can’t topple the establishment without playing it, so Cincinnati’s schedule (often planned five-to-10 years in advance), including road tests at Indiana and Notre Dame, provide the necessary high-profile stages and protagonists.

Then, of course, Cincinnati has to go out and win all of its games and the American Athletic Conference championship impressively enough to fend off any lingering perception issues.

Also, it'll need general chaos in the sport to diminish the top brand names enough to disincentivize the CFP committee to hop teams with one or multiple losses over the Bearcats. “All the planets have to align just right to even have a puncher's chance,” says Dan Hoard, the voice of the Bearcats.

For Fickell, the approach to help all the pieces fit for perfection is linear. The Cincinnati football ethos is summed up by a reporter’s innocuous query if Fickell had any superstitions, small talk that got shot down in a big way. “Consistent,” Fickell hisses. “Not superstitious.”

Just in case, he keeps a red rosary in his pocket on gameday.

A Cincinnati mainstay and one memorable receipt for a suit

The oversized computer screen on the desk of operations director John Widecan is filled with images of pizza options from a Bloomington-area pizzeria. To understand Cincinnati’s journey to this moment, there’s no topping the man who knows three decades off Bearcat football history right down to the pizza toppings.

Widecan arrived as a graduate assistant in 1989 and never left, assisting everyone from Tim Murphy to Rick Minter to Tommy Tuberville and resisting offers from everywhere from Ohio State to the Bengals, Browns and Steelers. He’s officially the associate AD for operations, but unofficially he’s the program’s historian and heartbeat. “He’s absolutely the soul and glue [of Cincinnati athletics],” former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly told Yahoo Sports.

In a generation where Cincinnati evolved from a commuter school to a bustling urban university of 45,000 students and nearly 29,000 undergraduates, some of the top coaches in college football and the NFL have commuted through.

(Courtesy of the University of Cincinnati)
The Bearcats' coaching staff in 1996 included John Harbaugh (first in top row), Rex Ryan (third in top row), Sam Pittman (sixth in top row) and John Widecan (fifth in front row). (Courtesy of the University of Cincinnati)

Could the confluence of a historic 2021 season, Big 12 money and a seat at the big boys table help Cincinnati become a destination? Cincinnati’s history includes fabled athletes like Oscar Robertson and Sandy Koufax. The Kelce brothers — Travis and Jason — blossomed into consistent Pro Bowl-level NFL players. But in football, the biggest names became boldfaced after leaving town.

From 2004-2012, Mark Dantonio, Kelly and Butch Jones all stayed three seasons before hopping to Michigan State, Notre Dame and Tennessee, respectively. Widecan turned down job offers to leave from all of them. Even the rare unsuccessful UC coach can fail upward, as Tuberville was sworn into the U.S. Senate nearly five years after getting fired at the school.

That leaves Widecan, 55, as the Cincinnati athletics anomaly, the lifer staffer at a place best known for stepping stones.

Widecan still exchanges Christmas cards with John Harbaugh, the Ravens head coach who spent eight years at the school as special teams coach from 1989-1996. Harbaugh still texts Widecan occasionally when he hears Rush — Widecan’s favorite band — on the radio.

Widecan remembers Mike Tomlin interrupting a game of pickup hoops to take a call from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lured him to the NFL after the 2000 season over an offer from Notre Dame. Tomlin served on the same staff at UC in 1999 as Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher.

Widecan recalls longtime NFL coach Rex Ryan and Arkansas coach Sam Pittman on the same staff in 1996, with Ravens DC Don “Wink” Martindale usually not far from the action. “They were inseparable,” Widecan says with a chuckle.

Looming over Widecan’s desk is a small but critical piece of UC history, a receipt for $565.37 for a Gordon Dark Grey Stripe suit, a dress shirt and alterations from Joseph A. Bank that has proved costly and priceless. Following the 2006 season, Kelly came to interview in early December and didn’t have a suit for his introductory news conference. So Widecan drove Kelly over to Kenwood Towne Centre, where Kelly realized that he forgot his wallet.

Never one to slow down the operation, Widecan picked up the tab. He unsuccessfully attempted to expense the suit, saving the receipt from Dec. 4, 2006, after accounting rejected his request. Widecan never had the heart to ask Kelly for the cash. “Coach Kelly changed my life, he did so much for me,” Widecan said. “It's the best $565 I’ve ever spent.”

A receipt of a suit purchase for former Bearcats and current Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly remains a precious momento for John Widecan. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
A receipt of a suit purchase for former Bearcats and current Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly remains a precious momento for John Widecan. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Kelly had no idea of the expense rejection until a reporter told him this week. Kelly promised to send Widecan a check and gushed about everything his old friend did for him.

Nearly 12 years have passed since Kelly left for Notre Dame, which came in the wake of him leading the Bearcats to the Orange Bowl (2008) and Sugar Bowl (2009) in back-to-back seasons. The coach who maximized the Cincinnati program to perhaps its greatest heights now looms as the biggest obstacle for the Bearcats to climb even higher.

Kelly took on the tone of a proud parent this spring when talking about Cincinnati’s program — “I’ve seen it grow up,” he said.

Widecan hopes to oversee the move into the fifth football building during his tenure in the near future, which could symbolize the final stop on a program’s evolution to a destination. Perhaps then, the Bearcats can compete with places like Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan for top recruits.

“Oh, it's amazing,” Widecan said of the opportunity afforded by the new league. “It makes you proud. We wear Cincinnati on our chest.”

With that, Widecan tucked the receipt from Kelly’s suit back above his desk. He turned back to the business of ordering pizzas, the little details that help prompt bigger changes.

Monday – Desmond Ridder takes command

Desmond Ridder settles into his oversized black leather chair at the offensive staff table at 7:05 a.m. He’s the second person to arrive in the office, and he sits in the same place he sat well past 10:30 p.m. on Sunday as a half-drank blue Gatorade perspired in front of him.

Ridder sits across from pass-game coordinator Gino Guidugli and is eventually flanked by running backs coach Darren Paige and receivers coach Mike Brown. It’d be hard for a stranger to pick out which person of that grouping is a player.

Ridder came close to leaving Cincinnati for the NFL after last season, but he returned for his fourth season as a starter. Along with the birth of his daughter, Leighton Elizabeth, Ridder knew his development could take an additional step. Since he has already graduated and his academic commitment is reduced to a lone internship, he’s essentially approaching the 2021 season as an additional voluntary assistant coach.

“It just helps you just go out there and play the game slow and really see the bigger picture,” Ridder says.

Fickell, Guidugli and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock all huddled to hatch a plan to maximize Ridder’s final year mentally and physically. UC coaches encouraged Ridder to work out with noted quarterbacks tutor Jordan Palmer in California, bringing back some core exercises and practice warmup techniques — including slides to activate glutes — that have been incorporated into Ridder’s workout and practice regiment.

Ridder has been around long enough that the head coach who offered him a scholarship, Tuberville, is now a senator. The offensive coordinator who identified him as a high-end prospect, Zac Taylor, is now the head coach of the Bengals. (Taylor famously told UC’s video staff to stop taping other prospects at a camp and to focus on Ridder.)

Desmond Ridder has a shot at emerging as one of the top QBs selected in next year's NFL draft. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Desmond Ridder has a shot at emerging as one of the top QBs selected in next year's NFL draft. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

After throwing 19 touchdowns, just six interceptions, and leading an offense that finished No. 17 nationally in scoring (37.5 ppg), Ridder earned his seat at the staff room table. A win at Indiana would improve his career record as a starter to 33-4.

Ridder, in academic parlance, has emerged as a teaching assistant. He distills all the information from the late Sunday night cram and all-day Monday gameplan and passes it on to teammates. The main forums are the informal get-togethers he holds Tuesday and Wednesday with the offensive line and tight ends in the offensive line meeting room. Think the football version of a recitation with a TA.

After players shower and get treatment post-practice, they flip their feet up on the desks. Ridder goes through practice film with the laser pointer, much like the coaches are doing up in the offensive staff room. Last year, only Ridder and current Browns offensive tackle James Hudson III would watch film.

“It wasn’t as a collective whole as how we’re doing it this year,” Ridder said. “Obviously, there’s no coaches in there. And we’re just talking. I’m talking from my standpoint, asking, ‘What would happen here? What would you do here?'”

Entering his fifth and final season, Ridder has the dual motivation to finish strong. He has a family to provide for now, and there’s a gaping window to move up in the NFL draft if he can keep winning and improve his accuracy – 66.2% in 2020 – as the presumed quarterback NFL draft darlings Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma) and Sam Howell (UNC) have struggled.

His daughter, Leighton, is 5 months old and on the cusp of starting sleep training. He compliments his girlfriend, Claire Cornett, for being the family MVP by enduring the late-night feedings and sleep deprivation.

“Her breastfeeding is good for the dad, bad for the mom,” Ridder said. “She’s waking up two or three times in the middle of the night … and you roll over and see she’s feeding her with her eyes closed, and it’s a struggle because you can’t do anything.”

Most game weeks, Ridder doesn’t get to enjoy quality time with Leighton for five consecutive days. He spends Sunday mornings with her and gets about three hours on Monday after he returns from nine hours at the office. “From Tuesday through gameday, I'm here and she's asleep,” he said. “She's asleep when I leave and asleep when I get home, so it's really tough.”

Soon after Desmond and Claire had their daughter, he and the team experienced a significant loss that has shaped their perspective. Ally Sidloski, a Cincinnati soccer player, died in a freak boating accident.

Dozens of players bussed to the funeral, with Ridder suggesting to athletic director John Cunningham that they have roses for student-athletes — red for the women soccer players, pink for the other athletes – to honor her. “Just the concept he’d be thinking about that, with all that he’s got going on in his life shows the kind of leader he is,” Cunningham said.

Ridder made clear that the team wasn’t using Sidloski’s death as motivation, but rather instilling in them a daily appreciation. “It kind of hit us all hard,” he said. “It really made us never take anything for granted.”

And so Ridder enters the highest-profile stretch of his career playing for higher causes — his friend’s memory, his program’s future and the very real opportunity to secure his family’s future.

Sep 11, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle (81) celebrates after a touchdown with head coach Luke Fickell in the second half against the Murray State Racers at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle celebrates after a touchdown with head coach Luke Fickell against Murray State on Sept. 11 at Nippert Stadium. (Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports)

Tuesday – Will Luke Fickell stick with Ohio roots?

“The Luke Fickell Radio Show” airs live from the Montgomery Inn every week and is sponsored by Skyline Chili, a pair of quintessentially Cincinnati staples. As the longtime Voice of the Bearcats, Dan Hoard, kicks off the show in front of a packed audience, he’s immediately channeling another Cincinnati staple — the angst over losing a promising coach.

Hoard has been around long enough — 22 seasons — to do shows with Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Mark Dantonio and even Rick Minter. And he knows well the fan base’s angst over potentially losing Fickell, too. Not only is Fickell 34-6 the past four years, but his blue-collar ethos and Catholic faith have made him a perfect fit.

So after Hoard mentions Cincinnati’s blowout of Murray State, he slyly adds another topic to the show’s agenda: “The smog, earthquakes and terrible traffic that make Los Angeles a terrible place to live.”

Fickell, 48, laughs heartily at Hoard’s comedic touch, and plays along with a one-liner of his own: “Aren’t there forest fires, too?”

The day before, USC’s job opened up when the school fired head coach Clay Helton. Along with the general speculation that will link Fickell with any high-profile opening, the scrutiny intensified locally because USC athletic director Mike Bohn hired Fickell while the AD at Cincinnati.

Fickell’s response doubles as a personality profile: “That rock that I normally live under, just got bigger.”

Fickell has approached every coaching job the same way he did after strapping on his wrestling singlet in high school. He went 106-0 as a high school heavyweight at St. Francis DeSales in Columbus from 1990-92.

Fickell brought with him a similar singular approach to coaching. He focused on whatever was under his rock that day, defeating the opponent immediately in front of him — the next gameplan, recruiting battle or practice. Multiple times as an Ohio State assistant, Fickell passed on interviewing for jobs because he didn’t want to bail on a Buckeye recruiting trip.

Fickell’s dad, Pat, served in the Vietnam War. His mother Sharon’s job as a beautician has included obliging Luke’s occasional request to cut his hair at 10:30 p.m. Luke learned hard work and an appreciation of the precious present, which is why his eye never wandered far. A former Ohio State teammate of Fickell’s once described him as “not a New Year’s resolution-type of guy,” but rather “a way-of-life” kind of guy.

So when UC officials found out about their invitation to the Big 12 earlier this month, Fickell decided he’ll do any celebrating after the season. “No, not even a big smile or something,” he said when asked if he afforded himself a moment to celebrate.

He added that he saw how excited everyone was at the news conference but couldn’t quite take the time to relish: “I’m miserable because I gotta push team dinner back by five minutes,” he said, ever aware of the operation running on time. “But at some point in time, it’s something where I can say, ‘Damn, this is awesome.’”

While driving his Lexus SUV over to the radio show, Fickell’s excitement comes through as he discusses Cincinnati’s future. He states definitively that the Big 12 spot incentivizes him to stay at Cincinnati. “Yeah, it does,” he said. “As long as you're growing, you feel like, 'Hey, we can continue to do things.' And for me, that's a big deal. Could we still grow? Yeah, I think we could've and you kept telling yourself you will. But with this, I think you have to.”

As Fickell pulls a few blocks off campus, on the corner of McMillan and Vine streets, he points out an area where there’s talk of a potential site for a $60 million indoor football facility. It would be the caliber of facility that would allow Cincinnati to recruit at the Power Five level, as its current offices are shoehorned into the seventh floor of an eight-floor athletic department building — three of which are underground — adjacent to cozy 40,000-seat Nippert Stadium in the heart of campus. (Students frequently wander through Nippert as a cut-through while walking campus.)

“To be honest with you, I don't think it puts as much pressure on us as coaches yet,” Fickell said. “I think it puts a lot of pressure on the administration and the university to say, 'Do you really want this or are you just excited to have it?' Because if you really want it, then you gotta go now. Then you gotta invest now. And we'll know a lot more about how this is to everybody else. We know how serious this is to us because we live it.”

UC athletic director John Cunningham understands the urgency and says "plans are moving into the architectural design phase." Big 12 membership means “any perceived or real barriers are removed,” Cunningham says, and that the league change brings an exciting reality of competing for national titles.

He has told his coaches that the athletic department plans to launch a “Day 1” campaign to help the school transition seamlessly to the Big 12 from the start.

Keeping Fickell around will be crucial to Cincinnati continuing that ascent, as he has locked in local talent upon arrival so much that 65 percent of the roster is from Ohio and 82 percent from within a 300-mile radius. Those are more than 30 percent jumps from Tuberville’s staff.

This spring, the Fickells planted more roots by putting up a barn near their home that includes volleyball courts for his daughter, Luca, and basketball courts and wrestling mats for the two sets of twins.

Amy Fickell loves the family’s Midwestern Mayberry, living on the same street as Bengals owner Mike Brown. “If you can continue to get better, that's really what drives Luke, really,” she said. “And that opportunity is definitely there [with the Big 12], so it's very exciting.”

Fickell likes that he’s treated like a regular citizen around Cincinnati, and even at his radio show few of the diners ask for an autograph. Both sets of twins arrived at the show, including eighth-graders Aydon and Ashton still in their football pants from junior high practice.

As the show winds down, Hoard shouted out the presence of four of the six Fickell kids in the audience and surveyed the Rockwellian scene to give one last Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce pitch. “Isn’t this a great place to raise a family?” he said with a smirk.

(Special to Yahoo Sports)
Bearcats strength coach Brady Collins supervises a weight-lifting session with the football team. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Wednesday – A star nicknamed 'Sauce' and how Cincinnati carries weight of expectations

The music blaring from the Cincinnati weight room is slightly above a decibel heard at an after-hours house party. As the players hop downstairs to Biggie — “It was all a dream ...” — into the sub-basement weight room, a whiteboard greets them with a declaration in oversized type: “Big F’n Week.”

While many programs have their team lift by position or class, Cincinnati’s crew this morning is essentially a preview of the NFL scouting combine.

Tight end Josh Whyle bunny hops to Kenny Chesney’s “Young” between squat sets. Cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, perhaps Cincinnati’s highest-end NFL prospect, screams in catharsis after a bench exercise. QB Desmond Ridder mouths Avicii lyrics as he hustles through workout groups. They personify the sign that explains how this “Big F’n Week” came to be: “Culture is our competitive advantage.”

Any program that can’t recruit five-stars and rarely recruits four-stars must be developed in the weight room. And the top lieutenant in Fickell’s program is strength coach Brady Collins, a former Division III football player with more swag and certainly more designer sunglasses than your typical strength coach.

The best way to think of Fickell and Collins is that they’re a next-generation pairing, similar to Urban Meyer and his former weight room wingman, Mickey Marotti. Collins learned under Marotti at Ohio State, and both Meyer’s son (Bearcat walk-on receiver Nate Meyer) and Marotti’s son (operations assistant Mitch Marotti) are key behind-the-scenes cogs at Cincinnati.

It’s easy to build a culture in the weight room when the head coach lifts there at 6 a.m. every day. Fickell, a former Buckeye nose tackle, still looks like he could bull rush past most college linemen. And that full belief in relishing the weight room permeates through the team, as Collins strikes that delicate balance between being demanding yet motivating. “It's gonna suck,” safety Bryan Cook says of Collins’ workout, “but you're gonna have fun doing it.”

The Bearcats not only have a motto of “Tough and Nasty,” they proudly live it. “We don't ever feel out-manned or out-anything because we believe in our preparation,” said Cincinnati receiver Michael Young Jr., a Notre Dame transfer.

The NFL has taken notice. Cincinnati is favored in both of its marquee road games because it has elite, high-end players. Bearcat football chief of staff Greg Gillum notes that this fall, not only are NFL teams’ area scouts coming to watch the Bearcats, but national scouts and personnel directors are putting extra sets of eyes on them. (Eleven different teams sent scouts to the Indiana game and 17 franchises will have 27 scouts at the Notre Dame game.)

After speaking with a half-dozen NFL scouts, it’s fair to say that four Bearcats could end up going in the first two rounds off the draft – Ridder, the 6-foot-7 Whyle, twitchy end Myjai Sanders and the rangy Gardner projects highest of them all.

Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner has lived up to his nickname as a star cornerback in the eyes of NFL scouts. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

None of those recruits arrived ready-made to UC. Ridder was so skinny as a 175-pound freshman that Collins nicknamed him the “Calvin Klein Model.” Gardner weighed 152 pounds on arrival, but forced his way onto the field as a freshman and his emergence as a 205-pound, three-and-done prospect makes him a prime example of Collins’ development. Whyle is considered by some scouts a “Travis Kelce 2.0,” and Sanders plays with such a high motor that he has lost nine pounds in a single practice.

These transformations have come despite Cincinnati’s lack of a full-time nutritionist, which means the assistant strength coaches double as pancake chefs many mornings to be sure protein is packed into their diets.

There are at least five more players getting long NFL looks – Alabama transfer Jerome Ford (RB), Howard transfer Bryan Cook (S), 6-foot-3 Alec Pierce (WR), first-team all-AAC Coby Bryant (DB) and UConn transfer Darrian Beavers (LB).

Culture isn’t a cliché at Cincinnati, which is how this swashbuckling crew of raw, unflinching and unrelenting athletes emerged from overlooked to the linchpins of a top-10 program.

They’ve branded it Clifton Style here, a nod to the area around Cincinnati’s urban campus. And the most apt way to describe the aura around Cincinnati may be that it’s not the program that bleeps out the lyrics of the music thundering in the background of practice and lifting sessions. The Bearcats sing on, proudly uncensored.

Collins has turned down a handful of chances to run the weight programs at Power Five programs. He realized that the fanciest weight rooms — like those with actual windows — and the best Instagram videos don’t always translate to the best teams.

“There's nothing that we do that's like just to look cool or just to hit numbers,” Collins said. “Like everything has a transfer, and everything's about putting them in that position similar to a game or a rep where it's gonna be tough, it's gonna be demanding, and you can either give in or you can push through.”

With that comes veteran players who take coaching, but don’t need to be motivated to get through every rep. The culture is apparent in how little macro guidance Collins gives them. That’s why the music can play at a concert-in-the-pit decibel.

As the intensity increases, so apparently does the enjoyment. And the volume only rises.

“It’s a vibe,” Ridder said. “The atmosphere, the energy, the brotherhood, you're lifting with guys you want to lift with and guys that you've been lifting with for a long time. If you're doing something that's making you have fun, you can't hate it.”

And that vibe has Cincinnati certain it won’t get pushed around by any opponent, no matter the logo.

Thursday – Bearcats move a step ahead as college football evolves

At around 5:30 p.m., Luke Fickell knows that his staff has put in the requisite hours into de-mystifying Indiana’s schemes and gameplans. “Go home,” he declares in the offensive and defensive staff rooms. “I’m going to eat dinner with my family.”

At this point, the defensive staff has completed its deep dive on Indiana. The coaches huddled on Sunday, stuck around until 11 p.m. after practice and returned around 7:30 on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. A crate of Starbucks arrived to the middle of the table each morning, with safeties coach and Philadelphia native Colin Hitschler the notable holdout. Hitschler upholds his Northeast roots by running on Dunkin.

First-year defensive coordinator Mike Tressel sits at the head of the table for a majority of the week. He logs some extra hours because his family remains in the East Lansing, Michigan, area so their daughter, Quincy, can finish her last year of high school.

Tressel and Fickell go back to the early 2000s at Ohio State, long enough that Amy Fickell recalls the high chairs of Landon Fickell (UC freshman) and both Tressel kids next to each other at OSU family nights.

When Marcus Freeman left to become the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame last winter, a move that nearly tripled his salary, Fickell sought a veteran defensive coach who would continue to run and push the innovative defense that they’d developed as a staff over the first four seasons. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here,” Tressel said. “He’s a step ahead.”

Fickell compared Mike Tressel replacing Freeman, on a scaled-down version, to the difficulty of him replacing Jim Tressel as the coach at Ohio State as the interim. (Jim Tressel is Mike’s uncle.)

“It’s the heartbeat of that whole place,” Fickell said, referring back to his challenge a decade ago. “Every person there loved him. That’s much more difficult than anything else. When you walk in for Marcus, you’re taking over for somebody that had an incredible relationship – it’s a difficult job.”

Tressel calls the defense on gamedays for the Bearcats and has full autonomy, but also has the awareness to know that he’s still learning the defense. Fickell spends a significant amount of time in the Bearcat defensive staff room, joining Tressel at the head of the table and offering suggestions and drawing up scenarios – like motion to the boundary in 12 personnel – that often end up looking like Sanskrit.

Fickell is the architect and overseer, as Cincinnati’s schematic innovation on defense has been the underappreciated part of the Bearcats’ rise to the College Football Playoff conversation.

Fickell arrived as a defensive innovator, helping create Ohio State’s press-quarters scheme with four down linemen that the Buckeyes won the national title with in the 2014 season. Programs around the country studied it and copied it.

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 07: UCF Knights wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (4) catches a touchdown pass during the game against the UCF Knights and the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 7th, 2017 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
UCF wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith catches a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2017 during the Knights' route of the Bearcats. It was a defeat that helped signal to the Bearcats that big changes were needed. (Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In 2017, Cincinnati yielded a school-record 569 rushing yards to Navy. A 51-23 loss to UCF that year proved especially humiliating since a lightning storm canceled the game late in the third quarter. Fickell chucked his ego and began changing, as press quarters took elite outside talent that UC lacked.

The defense evolved in 2018, with Cincinnati creating a Jack defensive position for a hybrid defensive lineman on the boundary who could both rush and drop into coverage. Fickell’s focus and the changes worked, as Cincinnati smoked Navy, 42-0, and the Bearcats went 11-3 and finished ranked No. 24 with a top-15 defense.

But UCF’s high-tempo, heavy-vertical and pass-happy scheme still bedeviled the Bearcats. UCF won 38-13 in 2018, exploiting the underneath zones and the Jack’s vulnerability when having to cover in space. “We were good enough to get to nationally ranked at Cincinnati, and we still divorced it and moved to another thing to get higher,” said Hitschler, who is in his fourth season on staff.

In 2019, UC debuted a brand-new defense – known as Dollar – against UCF on a Friday night in October. The defense vacuumed up all the underneath space that UCF had previously exploited, as Cincinnati went to a 3-3-5 alignment that could almost be considered as having 5.5 defensive backs.

The Bearcats upset the No. 18 Knights, 27-24, and the “Dollar” defense soon became UC’s staple in the pass-happy AAC. The scheme changed so radically that UC’s star Jack defensive end, Michael Pitts, ended up transferring to Western Kentucky. He was a good player who simply didn’t fit the scheme.

“The constant development is what makes it, in my opinion, special,” Hitschler said. “It's just to constantly adapt and push forward and not sleep on it, we don't just sit up there and say, 'What did we do well last week?'”

And that’s expanded seamlessly to Tressel, as the days of discussion with Hitschler, corners coach Perry Eliano, special teams coach Brian Mason and Scruggs are essentially high-end problem solving. Every formation and scenario are like a complicated math equation, and both Fickell and Tressel lead the group through the potential answers to keep UC a step ahead.

Friday night – It's all on Desmond Ridder's wrist

As the quarterback wristband construction delves into the arts-and-crafts phase, the distillation of the UC offense into one place signifies the other dramatic schematic evolution during Fickell’s time at Cincinnati.

In an era of offense-first football, Cincinnati has gone from one of the 20 worst offenses in college football to one of the 20 best, flipping from No. 110 with 20.9 points per game in Fickell’s first year in 2017 to No. 17 last year (37.5 ppg) and No. 13 so far this season (43).

Fickell is pleased with that evolution, especially because the staff has grown and adjusted philosophically rather than him clearing house and starting over. Fickell is a believer in consistency over superstition and family over mercenaries, so he’s proud of the way Cincinnati’s offensive staff and schemes have grown up around Ridder.

“Let’s develop just like we've done on defense,” Fickell said. “Let's continue to develop and if we've got the right people, we'll figure out the development of who we can be. I'm happy those guys have stuck around, and I'm happy that we've seen that evolution and not gotten to that point where you get frustrated and think that something else is better.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who came from Notre Dame, has been the coordinator the entire time. Fickell has consistently promoted and empowered pass game coordinator Gino Guidugli. He’s UC’s all-time leading passer – who Ridder has no chance to catch – and a Ring of Honor member who began with Fickell as the running backs coach in 2017. He became quarterbacks coach a year later and pass game coordinator in March of 2020, his rise matching Ridder’s.

Denbrock jokes that the Bearcats are never exactly going to be “Chip Kelly’s Oregon by any stretch,” as they have a defensive-minded head coach who values complementary football. But he also notes the “freedom to be more aggressive” thanks to significantly upgraded personnel – Jerome Ford’s transfer from Alabama, Alec Pierce’s emergence as a go-to receiver and receiver Michael Young’s transfer from Notre Dame.

Few teams have a tight end combination to match the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Leonard Taylor and the 6-foot-6 and 245-pound Josh Whyle, both of whom popped their heads into Monday’s offensive gameplan meetings to lobby for more 12 personnel.

In the UC staff room, Denbrock cuts the mold of the wise professor, his feet popped on the desk and delivering macro guidance. Guidugli is the young gunslinger, bounding up and down on the stepladder in the staff room to jot down the plays that eventually ended up on Ridder’s wristband.

The offense has progressed as Ridder has developed, as the quarterback's career arc, mastery of the scheme and maturity are reminiscent of Dak Prescott by the time his career wound down at Mississippi State. Ridder arrived as a runner who carried the ball 11.4 times per game as a freshman.

He chuckles at his rudimentary understanding of the offense in his first appearance against UCLA in his redshirt freshman season – coming off the bench to lead UC to a win. Things were so basic that he’d look to the sideline and get a thumbs-up from Guidugli to run a play once the coaches had peeked at the defense. “I might have called out one-high or two-high [safety] or even-odd [front], but it was really let’s get these plays run and make a play.”

These days, Ridder has a coach’s mastery of the offense. By the end of his sophomore year, he’d developed enough confidence in his arm to throw hole shots – the sweet spot between safeties in a deep zone – against Memphis’ Cover 2. In a quarterback meeting earlier in the week, Ridder’s rat-a-tat cadence as he chats play options with Guidugli is indicative of his mastery.

“We’ll go Quad-Straight-Hawaii-Warm-Tempo-Coffee”

“We’ll go Fives-Down-Grease-Chair-Plane-Maine”

“We’ll go Solo-Cold-Straight-Gronk-Hot-Q-Rock-Post”

Against Murray State in Cincinnati’s second game, Ridder saw a zero coverage look across the line, audibled to an inside post out of 3x1 known as “Feather” and threw an inside post to Tre Tucker for a 48-yard gain.

“You want to empower your quarterbacks to have some ownership in the gameplan,” Guidugli said. “And I think it’s great when you get a player back-and-forth, not that he’s challenging you as a coach, but wants to understand. ‘Hey, why are we doing this? Did you guys think about doing this?’

"Sometimes as a coach, you don’t always see it from their perspective, and I think that’s healthy.”

And to win at Indiana on Saturday, all of that knowledge has to fit on Ridder’s wrist.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell leads a round of celebration after the Bearcats rallied to beat the Hoosiers. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell leads a round of celebration after the Bearcats rallied to beat the Hoosiers. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Saturday – Taking body shots and looking at showdown vs. Notre Dame

The Cincinnati football players pounded the top of the makeshift lockers in the cramped visiting dressing room at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium. The bass din of the celebratory thumping, primal screams of a successful road coup and the distinct splashy pops of sweaty victory hugs ushered in the sensory overload that comes with a seminal victory.

Amid the litter of empty Gatorade bottles and piles of bloodied athletic tape, amid the occasional player laying prone from exhaustion, the Bearcat players danced with delight. They celebrated a true road victory, something no team executed in 2020, as they overcame an electric crowd, self-inflicted mistakes and a 90-degree day that had athletic trainers scrambling to the top of stools at halftime to deliver IV bags.

Cincinnati outlasted Indiana, 38-24, by overcoming a 14-0 deficit, surviving five first-half pre-snap penalties and adjusting to the crowd noise that forced them to scrap the fulcrum of its their offensive game plan. All of Nate Letton’s lamination crafts were tossed by the third drive, as the Bearcats stopped huddling when they couldn’t stay onside or find any rhythm. Ridder didn’t even wear the wrist band in the second half.

Cincinnati won the program’s 12th straight regular-season game with the roots of what got them to the cusp of playoff contention – sticking together. No one complained on the sideline. Guys didn’t chirp at each other. They endured, kept fighting and figured it out by forcing four turnovers.

“There was never a doubt in my mind,” Fickell told the team as they beehived around him in the cramped locker room. “What did we take? Body blows! Body blows! Body blows! I promise you, the way you train, it matters. It really does. I know it wasn’t perfect, it’s not going to be. You’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

While the execution wasn’t perfect, the record stayed that way. And that’s why the Bearcats (3-0), now ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll, are favored at No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) this weekend. (BetMGM has them as 2-point favorites.) This will certainly be the biggest and highest-profile regular-season game in Cincinnati history, with opportunities like this showing how many factors have to coalesce to give the Bearcats a chance to upend the sport’s establishment.

“We don’t flinch,” Gardner said after the game. “We prepare the same way for every opponent. They put their pants on just like we do. It ain’t no, ‘We playing Notre Dame so we gotta do this different.’”

After Fickell’s speech, he ducked into a sidedoor to the coaches’ locker room, looking dazed and satisfied. He smirked and asked no one in particular:

“Did we break double digits in penalties?”

“Eleven for 72 yards” came the answer.

“Only 72 yards, that’s not that bad,” his voice acidic with sarcasm.

Cincinnati can stray only so far from perfection, as it’s positioned ahead of flashy logos like Michigan, Ohio State and Florida. But last year’s College Football Playoff rankings offered a harsh window into the value of winning American Athletic Conference games. Could a win over Notre Dame and beyond position the Bearcats higher when the first CFP rankings are announced on Nov. 2?

Ironically, the 24-21 Peach Bowl loss to UGA on a go-ahead 52-yard field goal with three seconds left may have delivered the Bearcats more credibility than their undefeated regular season and AAC title. “All those guys that are playing for them right now played in that game, and everybody says they're the best defense and best team,” Denbrock said. “So these guys aren't afraid to measure themselves.”

For upstart Cincinnati, everything that had to come together did — the hallowed backdrop, top-10 opponent and national television audience. The sport’s blue bloods are floundering, as if on cue, with Clemson out of the picture, Ohio State struggling and Oklahoma’s offense sputtering. A path to the top four, once a novel idea, has never been closer to reality for a Group of Five team. All the pieces are in place.

With the stakes the highest they’ve been in school history, those who’ve stuck around have been rewarded – the coach who planted his family’s roots deep in the city, the quarterback who chose to start his family there and the melting pot of overlooked and under-recruited players who trained for this moment.

To beat the Irish and seize the moment, of course, will take much more than luck. Just in case, Fickell will have his red rosary tucked in his pocket on the sideline Saturday.

Desmond Ridder poses with his offensive line after Cincinnati's defeat of Indiana on Sept. 18. (Special to Yahoo Sports)