| The News Record)
Tommy Tuberville has officially stepped down as head coach of the University of Cincinnati football program, ending months of speculation.
It’s bittersweet for me. I fully believe that the program is better positioned for the future today than it was yesterday, and I think UC will have the chance to hire a coach much more aligned with the goals of the university. That said, it’s never a good thing when your program is in a period of turmoil, and it’s never a good thing when good people lose their jobs. Christmas is three weeks from today, and a lot of good people are jobless. It’s a sad situation.
Tuberville — whether people realize it or not — did a lot of good for the university. In 2013, UC reinstated funding to its Olympic sports scholarship program, largely in part to a $300,000 donation from Tuberville. I can’t say for sure, but that likely made Tuberville the university’s largest olympic sports donor. He didn’t have to do that, but it was proof of his investment at UC. His teams excelled in the classroom, he recruited young men with character, and was quick to discipline when players fell outside of those expectations. In a day and age where atrocious events are allowed to occur in the name of winning, Tuberville often sacrificed talent in the name of running a clean program. For that, I’m very grateful. UC is my alma mater, and he respected it.
He also brought hope to UC at a time when we needed it. It’s easy to forget how much it sucks to lose good coaches three times in six years. Tuberville brought a proven name and stability. We were all excited. I was at his introductory press conference. It was really, really fun.
My best memory of Tuberville was from December 2014. His team was on the brink of securing a share of the AAC championship with a win against Houston. Games were being played at Paul Brown that season, and the weather was supposed to be miserable. Ticket sales were dismal. At halftime of basketball’s win over Stony Brook, Tuberville came out to half court and encouraged fans to come out to support the seniors and see the team win a conference title. He announced that he had bought tickets for everyone at Fifth Third Arena. He was just trying to get support for a team that had earned it. He didn’t have to do that. I thought that was cool.
On the one occasion I was fortunate enough to meet Tommy, he was exceedingly kind, funny, and down to earth. He’s a good man (others will back me up), and he didn’t want to fail here.
To be fair, Tuberville faced his fair share of adversity. It can be tough to win at a program like Cincinnati, where money is an issue. Tuberville never had that problem before in his career. I don’t think he anticipated that issue, and I don’t think he anticipated the kind of backlash he eventually saw by the end of the 2016 season. He was caught off guard, to some extent. On top of that, he dealt with a variety of critical injuries to key players, he underwent a change at athletic director and then president, and he had the massive distraction (and then letdown) of conference realignment.
That being said, there were still a lot of failures. I think it’s an interesting scenario because those failures were numerous, but small. Until things hit a breaking point with the “go to hell, get a job” outburst, I’m sure many on the outside didn’t see how things had eroded at UC. I think Tommy’s time in Clifton is a testament to what happens when small failures pile up without equal successes to balance them out.
It’s easy to look at the numbers and be surprised that a program like Cincinnati parted ways with a historically successful coach after his first losing season. 2016 was his first failure to make a bowl game. Cincinnati doesn’t exactly have a sprawling history of football success, so it might be shocking that fans were so quick to turn on a coach after his first poor season.
I get that.
Based on raw numbers, Tuberville was doing “okay” up until about six weeks ago. But the fan base is much less likely to withstand a season like 2016 without any good will stored up prior to that. Mark Dantonio went 4–8 this season, which is a catastrophe at a school like Michigan State. Nobody in their right mind is calling for his head, because he’s built up enough favor with the fans and donors to easily withstand a poor season.
Tuberville, whether he realized it or not (I suspect he didn’t), failed to do that.
Until the very end of his tenure, Tuberville was mostly great at doing what he was supposed to do. He beat bad teams and recruited well enough to get to a bowl game each year. He wasn’t particularly fiery on the sidelines or impassioned in interviews. He seemed increasingly okay with doing the bare minimum. That’s just fine, and it worked for him through the 2015 season. But when the bare minimum is the game plan, you have no room for error. 2016 was a large error.
I’ll remember Tuberville for doing what he had to do, but very little of what he should do — at least on occasion. Fans live and die for the occasional big wins, and Tuberville had almost none of those.
Here are some small, understandable failures that started to pile up:
- Tuberville was 0–3 in bowl games, getting outscored 114–41. Bowl games are inherently against tough opponents, but you have to win them, at least occasionally.
- In four seasons, Tuberville won just one conference championship. He took over a program that had won conference titles in a “power” conference four times in five years. Winning conference championships isn’t easy, but you have to do it — especially at Cincinnati, and especially in the AAC.
- Tuberville’s teams were 5–14 against teams with 8+ wins, winning just one of their last 13. They were also 0–9 in the AAC in that span. It’s not easy beating good teams, but its the mark of a premiere program. Tuberville’s teams beat good opponents increasingly less and less often.
- Marquee non-conference games were a disaster. Tuberville did manage to beat an 8-win Miami team at Nippert in 2015. That was a big win, but that can’t be your biggest win. Not at a place that’s gotten used to success. That was just one moment seized. In addition to AAC failures, Tuberville lost to Miami, lost to Ohio State, lost to Illinois, and lost to BYU twice. In a vacuum, those are very understandable losses. But they’re missed opportunities that matter to fans while piled on top of one another.
- Tuberville’s teams were 0–4 against ranked opponents. One loss was against rival Louisville, two losses were against “new rival” Houston, and the fourth loss was against Ohio State — a team UC fans would love to beat. Again, those losses are fine in a vacuum. When added up, they start to grate on fans and create a very short leash when trouble comes.
Here’s a brief timeline of how things slowly and quietly eroded before collapsing:
Tuberville takes over a 10-win team and starts the season with a blowout win over Purdue at Nippert. The following week, he gets blown out by Illinois, squeaks past Miami OH two weeks later, and then loses to a bad South Florida team. He straightened things out and won six straight before dropping the Louisville game and the Belk Bowl vs North Carolina. Simply close the deal on the Illinois and USF games and this is an 11–2 team, even having lost the two biggest games of the season. That was a missed opportunity.
Easily Tuberville’s best year. The Bearcats beat everyone they should have, but lost three straight early to Ohio State (the eventual champion), Memphis (a good team), and Miami (a tough road game). UC won seven straight to close the season with a share of the AAC title. The ‘Cats lost the Military Bowl to a mediocre Virginia Tech team, but only after Gunner Kiel left early due to injury. I have a hard time nitpicking this season too much. Would’ve been nice to get past Memphis early, winning the AAC outright and finishing with 10 wins. Otherwise, this season was fine by me.
Tuberville’s biggest disaster. I know he dealt with some less-than-ideal injuries from his starting quarterback, and also lost some important defensive depth, but winning seven games with that kind of offensive talent is a travesty. This team had 10-win talent and was picked to win the conference, but instead won just seven games and got absolutely demolished in the Hawaii Bowl. Fans were restless, which made the 2016 talent vacuum really poorly-timed.
I hate to say it, but this was Tuberville’s worst team, from a talent standpoint. Obviously he’s partially to blame (recruiting has slipped), but it’s still the case. This was supposed to be his “down year,” but it came on the heels of an even bigger letdown. This team probably should’ve been 6–6, but even 4–8 would’ve been palatable with 10 or 11 wins in 2013, nine wins in 2014, and ten wins in 2015. Instead, he lost some games along the way, making 4–8 in 2016 look and feel like an absolute train wreck. Toss in the “go to hell” outburst, whatever happened with Gunner, blaming the fans for a poor environment at Nippert, and ludicrously saying the program is better than it was when he took over, and it’s no wonder his approval rating was in the trash. Tuberville slowly dug his own grave for three and a half seasons before diving in head first in the middle of the 2016 season.
I don’t hate Tommy Tuberville. Not even a little bit. He began to frustrate me to no end halfway through his final season, but he’s a good guy. I wish him nothing but the best, and I think he still has the skills to be successful. Some school will find him, want him, and succeed with him.
Thanks for choosing Cincinnati, Tommy. I’m truly sorry it didn’t work out. I wish you well.
It’s time to move towards the future. Onward.
Below, read my letter to Bearcats about the future and my examination of top coaching candidates.