He was perfectlycontent. Just happy to be there. He was, in other words, ripe for a goodold-fashioned kick in the rear. Tony Pike, a junior who had attempted only 20passes in his college career, had begun the summer of 2008 as Cincinnati'sfifth-string quarterback, buried on the depth chart behind an ineligible playerand a future linebacker, among others. Now it was late August, and the wayBearcats coach Brian Kelly saw it, Pike was comfortably resigned to anotherseason riding the pine. "He was caught in the same malaise the Universityof Cincinnati program has been caught in all these years," says Kelly."A collective feeling of, 'We're happy to be here, but that's aboutit.'"
Kelly corneredPike after a workout, and the message was simple: Go out and impress thecoaches that week in practice, or get your degree and go home. "We demandedthat Tony set his expectations higher," says Kelly.
It was a turningpoint for Pike, and a key moment for the Cincinnati football program. Pikebegan to shine in practice. ("It was the wake-up call I needed," thequarterback says.) He shot up the depth chart and by the season's third weekwas piloting Kelly's breathless no-huddle, spread offense toward a Big Eastchampionship. Now, a year later, Pike is leading a formidable team that hasbeen college football's biggest early-season surprise in a first month that wasfull of surprises. Upsets have abounded; in each of the first four weeks atleast one top 10 team has lost. Last week alone Ole Miss, Penn State, Cal andMiami fell victim. Cincinnati, meanwhile, keeps humming along. Yes,Cincinnati—a program whose stadium is a crumbling concrete bandbox with noluxury boxes and a capacity of barely 35,000, a program whose pinnacle beforeits Orange Bowl appearance last January was winning the Missouri ValleyConference title in 1964, a program that hasn't produced a first-round NFLdraft pick in 38 years—is the beast of the Big East and perhaps the best teamin the state of Ohio. (That includes you, Buckeyes.)
Indeed, theBearcats—not the Bobcats, as Barack Obama proclaimed them during a campaignspeech on campus last year—are a dark horse national title contender (box,below) and the toast of a sports-crazed city starved for a winner. "Youcouldn't give away your tickets when I was a freshman," says seniorlinebacker Craig Carey. "Now we're, like, the hottest ticket intown."
And the hottestgunslinger in town (Carson Palmer, step aside) may very well be the Bearcats'late-blooming quarterback, who has developed, improbably, into the Big East'stop passer and has even popped up on Heisman watch lists. Against Fresno Statelast Saturday, at Nippert Stadium, Pike threw three touchdown passes and, forthe third time in four games, for at least 300 yards. The 28--20 victory liftedCincinnati (4--0), which was unranked at the start of the season, into the top10 for the first time (at No. 10). "From where I was sitting a year ago, ifsomeone would have told me I'd be here today and that the team would be whereit is," says Pike, "I would have told them they were completelycrazy."
After 120 yearsof irrelevance, Cincinnati football, like Pike, just needed a little Dr. Philtough love. Enter Kelly, who was hired in late 2006 after building winners atGrand Valley State (Division II national champions in '02 and '03) and CentralMichigan (Mid-American Conference champs in '06). The Bearcats joined the BigEast in 2005, but Kelly quickly found the program to be of less-than-BCSquality. "We don't have practice fields—we practice in our stadium," hesays. "[I coach] a spread, no-huddle team that has a fast tempo, and I haveto do it on 45 yards while the defense is on the other side [of the field]. Areyou kidding me?"
In addition topushing for better facilities—new practice fields will open next fall, and astadium expansion is being discussed—Kelly, 46, has demanded more from theCincinnati press corps and an indifferent fan base. "From Day One he'sshown up at everything from junior high banquets to Girl Scout fund-raisers toCatholic men's conferences," says athletic director Mike Thomas, who hasseen football season tickets and his department's donor base double sinceKelly's arrival.
"I realizedat the beginning that I had to be at every chicken dinner, at every bar, atevery community-service event, so the city could see the passion that I had forthe program," says Kelly. "That was the way to build support forit—that and winning games."
If Kelly acts andsounds like a politician, it's because at heart he is one. The son of analderman, he grew up north of Boston, in a family obsessed with politics. Hewas a captain of the Assumption College football team and later an assistantcoach at the Massachusetts school, but he also dabbled in politics, working fora state senator and on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. (Kelly has fondmemories of driving Hart around Boston in his Ford Escort.) But Kelly isn'tjust good on the stump. He is also regarded as one of the game's brightestminds, an innovator who has transformed the Bearcats' offense—a high-octaneunit that scored its four TDs against Fresno State on drives lasting 2:12,1:43, 2:53 and 1:45, none covering less than 71 yards—into one of the country'smost dynamic. Kelly is constantly scribbling new plays in the spiral notebookshe carries everywhere ("I have a basement full of them," he says) andis always itching to add a wrinkle to a play. One day during practice lastseason Pike was standing on the sideline when Kelly walked over madly doodlingin a notebook. "The idea was a version of a screen to [wideout] MardyGilyard, but he wanted a quick catch-and-throw where we'd let the defensethrough the line and our linemen get to the second level," says Pike. Thatweek Cincinnati used the play against Miami of Ohio, and Gilyard scored. "Ican't even count how many times we've scored on that play since then," saysPike.
A perfect regularseason and an invitation to the national championship game were unimaginablebefore the season. But the Bearcats should be favored in each of theirremaining eight games, though the schedule includes tricky trips to SouthFlorida and Pitt and a home date with West Virginia. Cincinnati ranks 12th inthe country in total offense, but just as impressive has been its defense,which lost 10 starters from last year but has been nearly immovable in newcoordinator Bob Diaco's 3--4 scheme. The unit held Fresno State to three pointsin the second half, a week after it limited Oregon State star Jacquizz Rodgersto a career-low 3.7-yard rushing average in a 28--18 victory. Make no mistake,however: The Bearcats revolve around the cannon-armed Pike, who stands 6'6"and moves around in the pocket with surprising gracefulness.
Early on, Pikehad issues with football. "Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with it,"he says. "I didn't like the hitting." In the first game of his freshmanyear at Cincinnati's Reading High, he was leveled by a running back andrequired six stitches to his lower lip. "I remember telling my dad, 'Idon't want to do this anymore. I hate football,'" says Pike. "But hepersuaded me to stick it out." Then, during Pike's junior year, his coachwent to a no-huddle offense and tapped Pike to run it. Says the quarterback,"I started to love football because I loved throwing the ball."
Only Cincinnatiand Toledo courted Pike, and he decided to stay home. Literally. He's backliving with his parents, in a room over the garage of the northern Cincinnatihouse where he grew up. He spends many nights hanging with his three siblings,including his sister, Jenna, whom he took to a Disney on Ice show for hereighth birthday two nights before the Fresno State game. Don't read anythinginto that; no one questions Pike's toughness anymore. In Corvallis the Bearcatssnapped Oregon State's 26-game home nonconference winning streak as Pikedirected a 79-yard touchdown drive to seal the victory. Says Kelly, "Tonyhasn't played a lot. He still has progressing to do."
As do theBearcats' faithful. During a recent home game Kelly's father, Steve, waswaiting in a long line for the bathroom when an elderly man decked out inCincinnati apparel turned to him. Not knowing who the guy next to him was, theman said, "I like that Kelly, but I hate waiting for concessions. I hatethe fact that we're winning now."
Says Kelly with alaugh, "I guess you've arrived when people are complaining that you'rewinning." The savior of Cincinnati football then adds, "Hopefully thelines keep getting longer."
Now on SI.com
Stewart Mandel'sCollege Football Overtime every Monday at SI.com/bonus
After years of irrelevance, the Bearcats needed alittle Dr. Phil tough love. Enter Kelly.
The SI Playoff Bracket
Beginning this week a panel of 14 writers and editorsfrom SI and SI.com vote for the 16 Division I-A teams that deserve to play forthe national championship in a postseason tournament. (And yes, SI supports theimplementation of such a format.) Why roll out a new ranking system now?Because after the first four weeks of the season, title contenders have emergedon the strength of their play instead of preseason hype. In the SI bracketthere are no automatic bids, no special treatment for independents in SouthBend, no limit on the number of schools allowed from a BCS conference—in fact,no BCS at all. Just the top 16 teams in the land.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please seehardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
5 Virginia Tech
12 Ohio State
6 Boise State
SI Playoff Bracket is released every Sunday for therest of the season at SI.com/bonus
Photographs by JOHN BIEVER
ANSWERING THE CALL Kelly (right) challenged Pike, and the quarterback has responded with 30 touchdown passes in his last 16 games.
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
GOOD STUFF A revamped D kept Ryan Mathews and Fresno State out of the end zone in the second half.