Sunday, September 05, 1999

UC football still running in place


Big victory comes before only 17,000

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Rick Minter prowled the sidelines in a black, long-sleeve sweater. He was impervious to the 90-degree heat and oblivious to the stifling humidity.

        “I'm too fat right now to let my waistline show,” the University of Cincinnati's football coach said after Saturday's 41-3 stampede of Kent. “And I like to sweat.”

        Minter is every molecule a football coach, a man who sees the world through bruise-colored blinders, and this was the first Saturday of his season. His game face was grim. His tunnel vision was in tight focus. He was so wrapped up in his work, it was a wonder he remembered which shoe fit which foot.

        Beneath the Johnny Cash wardrobe, Minter's lack of concern for the climate conjures Woody Hayes. The fabled Ohio State coach was famous for standing in shirtsleeves while most of the spectators shivered beneath blankets. It was his way of setting a tone of toughness, and it helped to create a legend Hayes cultivated as carefully as a flower bound for the State Fair.

        Minter's stage is considerably smaller, and his results comparatively mixed. He has made his mark on Bearcat football, and by season's end will have coached more games than any man in the program's history, but the program remains a hotbed of apathy. Even as Minter started his sixth season with a resounding victory, it was tough to tell where UC football is headed.

        Is this a program that belongs on the same field with Wisconsin's Badgers (Sept. 18) and Ohio State's Buckeyes (Sept. 25)? Or should UC be content to compete with the limited objectives of the Mid-American Conference? Or, as dissident factions have periodically proposed, should UC drop football altogether to bring greater balance to the athletic budget?

        If Minter called plays in a spacesuit — or his birthday suit, for that matter — could he convince Cincinnati to care?

        “I still have the ambition of having this program get better and better,” he said. “But I get disappointed when people don't come out and watch us. I've coached at Notre Dame, and I wish so badly that our players could experience the feeling of what it's like to play in that atmosphere.”

        UC is always striving to crack into the big time in college football, and is forever frustrated by the constant climb. The Bearcats' victory in the 1997 Humanitarian Bowl ended a span of 46 seasons between bowl appearances, but the lasting impact of that breakthrough has been negligible. The Bearcats finished last season 2-9 and started their new campaign before a crowd announced as 17,210.

        “I always wish our players could come out at Nippert Stadium in front of 35,000 fans, and 32,000 are dressed in black,” Minter said. “I'm kind of the eternal optimist, who thinks somewhere along the way something will strike a chord where people in this town will see college football as a way to spend their entertainment dollar.”

        UC football's progress follows a zigzag pattern, like a ship convoy trying to elude detection by the enemy. When there has been success on the playing field, it has rarely led to inroads in recruiting. Coaches come to feel as if they are forever starting from scratch. It is the kind of tedious, repetitive work that has worn many a good man down. Those UC football coaches who don't manage to get themselves fired tend to skip town at the first decent offer.

        But Minter has stayed on, and he has started to grow roots. He remarried this summer and talks of becoming more involved in the community. His oldest son, Josh, has enrolled in UC's design school.

        Minter has remained in Clifton long enough to see some of his first recruits graduate as fifth-year seniors, long enough to sign a contract extension through the 2002 season, long enough to replace a revolving door with something more stable.

        The long sleeves are mainly for show, a coach's ploy to convince his players he will take as much punishment as he will cause; that all of them are engaged in a common quest; that toughness is its own reward.

        The road is long. Rick Minter's legs are still willing.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mails at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

UC 41, KENT 7
Game summary
UC NOTEBOOK
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE