It’s Tony Pike.
Got you there, didn’t I? I do think Tony deserves to be called UC’s greatest quarterback. I’ll lay out my reasoning here in a second. The reason I wanted to lead the post with my answer is that it felt like the best way to start the conversation without turning it into “Who isn’t the best Bearcat quarterback ever?”
Because that’s not what this is. I’ve removed the mystery of my choice so we can have a healthy debate here. Nothing negative. There really isn’t a bad opinion on this topic, and the fact that there is room for debate is great for UC. We’ve had some good signal callers.
This all started with a random question posed to me on Twitter by Allan Henle, and I liked the discussion that flowed out of it. So here we are talkin’ quarterbacks. The best quarterbacks.
In an effort to keep this thing a reasonable length, I won’t directly talk about each of these points with every quarterback. They all go into my thinking though.
Stats. Stats aren’t perfect, and different eras yield vastly different numbers, but you have to factor them in.
Strength of schedule. It’s not fair, but you have to look at who the opponents were. Danny McCoin would’ve loved to play a Big East schedule, but we can only look at his numbers in the context of who he faced.
Historical importance. Is the player in the Ring of Honor? Did they lead a team that broke a bowl drought? Were they an undeniable fan favorite? Were their games played on national TV or did they dominate the ‘50s MAC?
Winning. This is tough, but I don’t know how you can avoid it. There are some guys on here that didn’t have the luxury of playing with a talented cast around them, but how can you decide how well Gunner Kiel would’ve done on the 2009 team? You ultimately can’t.
Recency bias. Another thing that sucks but will happen. Recent players automatically get more love unless you’ve got a situation like Oscar Robertson. Their numbers and impact are simply easier to contextualize without doing mental gymnastics.
Those who know Cincinnati football history are familiar with the first Bearcat Football Golden Era that took place in the ‘40s and ‘50s. When the football program resumed after a two-year hiatus for World War II, they did so under the guidance of head coach Ray Nolting and later Sid Gillman. The first quarterback in this era was Tom O’Malley.
In his freshman year in 1946, O’Malley came off the bench during the final game of the season—the Battle for the Victory Bell. Late in a close game, he found Elbie Nickel for a touchdown that sent UC to its first bowl game ever and first nine-win season since the 19th century.
As a junior in 1948, O’Malley finished top-10 nationally in passing before leading the nation as a senior. His final game was a victory over Toledo in the 1949 Glass Bowl. The Bearcats next bowl win wouldn’t come until nearly 50 years later.
The argument could probably be made that O’Malley was the first great QB in Bearcat football history.
Gene Rossi came in on the heels of Tom O’Malley, playing as a freshman in 1949, although not becoming a starter until 1950.
Rossi was head coach Sid Gillman’s dream quarterback, maybe even more than O’Malley was. He was a dual-threat way ahead of his time and won tons of games behind great coaching. Think of him as the ‘50s Zach Collaros. When he left Clifton, he was the career leader in completions, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdown passes.
He ranks 6th in passing touchdowns today, and only Danny McCoin and a bunch of 21st century gunslingers are ahead of him. He was from the future.
While UC doesn’t track career winning percentage, you have to believe 26-6-1 in three years would be near the top.
He was a two-time All-American Honorable Mention and piloted UC to its last bowl appearance in 46 years as a junior before helping the ‘Cats to their last 10-win season in 56 years as a senior.
After the flying success of the Sid Gillman Era, the Bearcats bottomed out in their first two years under George Blackburn, winning a total of just five games. Enter Jack “Jacky” Lee.
While most of the attention was understandably on a guy named Oscar Roberston at the time, the late ‘50s were the Jacky Lee show on the gridiron. Lee was UC’s starter in its first three years in the Missouri Valley Conference, leading the ‘Cats to a winning record in all three years—the only winning teams Blackburn coached in his tenure. Lee’s talent was vital.
As a junior, Lee ranked 10th nationally in passing, 14th in total offense. As a senior, he ranked 2nd nationally in passing, 4th in total offense.
After graduation, Lee was drafted in both the NFL and AFL drafts, but elected to sign with the AFL’s Houston Oilers after becoming their first-ever QB draft pick. His fruitful, 12-year professional career also stretched into Kansas City and Denver.
Lee donated $300,000 to the Bearcat football program in 2007 and the locker room bears his name.
Danny McCoin was a great QB in an era that desperately needed one. He was a three-year starter in 1985, ‘86, and ‘87, yet never finished with a winning record. Looking at his stats, you wouldn’t guess that. While his TD-INT margin wasn’t fantastic, he did throw 39 career touchdowns to 23 interceptions, far better than the Bearcats were accustomed to at the time. He’s the only QB from the ‘70s and ‘80s on the Top 10 career touchdowns list.
McCoin’s 6,801 career passing yards are third all-time, trailing just Gino Guidugli and Gunner Kiel. His career completion percentage is fifth at 60.5%.
Poor Danny’s career would look a lot brighter if he had a defense to help him out. Per this article from Down The Drive, McCoin’s defenses ranked 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 8th worst in program history. With the help of Reggie Taylor, he heaped points on the opponents but couldn’t even manage a career winning record for his troubles.
McCoin was an AP All-American Honorable Mention as a junior and was drafted in the 11th round by the Bengals although he never saw the field in the NFL.
When Gino Guidugli graduated after the 2004 season, the Bearcats were in a bit of a pickle for quarterbacks. The 2005 and 2006 seasons were guided by a duo of Dustin Grutza and Nick Davilla, who combined for 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions their first year and 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions their second. (And hey, they won eight games for the first time in nine years!)
Mauk transferred to Cincinnati from Wake Forest for his senior year in 2007 and took off, tossing 31 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. He gave UC a much-needed boost in Brian Kelly’s first year, piloting Cincinnati’s first 10-win campaign since 1951 and landing the Bearcats squarely on the Big Boy Football Map.
The reason Mauk isn’t closer to the heart of this conversation is obvious: He spent just one season in Clifton. He’s in the ballpark (maybe even at the top) for best UC quarterback seasons, but his numbers don’t cut it when discussing careers.
When thinking of Bearcat football in the 20th century, it’s easy to lump everything together as a wasteland of irrelevance. I think a lot of that mentality is because the 21st century has been (largely) very good to UC football. If the Bearcats went decades between bowl games, how good could it have possibly been?
Admittedly, some of this mentality is fair. Cincinnati had its fair share of struggles. Some of it, however, is off base. Greg Cook, who may be the most well-known 20th century Bearcat football player, is a good example. Believe it or not, the Bearcats had a quarterback drafted fifth overall in the ‘60s.
How’d he do it? Cook led the nation in all major categories as a senior in 1968, he threw for a then-NCAA record 554 passing yards against Ohio, and he closed out his career with a come-from-behind victory over rival Miami and head coach Bo Schembechler (in his last game before taking the Michigan job).
Bengals coach Paul Brown was impressed with the performance and decided to draft him with the team’s first pick in the 1969 AFL Draft, but a series of injury troubles prevented Cook from turning his mountain of talent into a sustained career.
This is sure to be the most polarizing name on this list. Kiel’s career at UC is fascinating to say the least. He was the country’s #1 pro-style quarterback out of high school, committing to Indiana… and then LSU… and then finally Notre Dame. After his freshman season with the Irish, he again decided to look for a better situation and wound up in Clifton. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, the next three seasons got weird.
In the first game of his college career, he destroyed Toledo at Paul Brown Stadium, finishing 25-for-37 for 418 yards and six touchdowns without an interception. The Gun Show was off and running, and he didn’t slow down for much of 2014, finishing with 31 touchdowns (tying Mauk’s program record for a season) and 13 interceptions.
Things went sideways in 2015, both for Gunner and for the program. Nagging injuries doomed his season, yet he still threw 19 more touchdowns. Somehow it was possible for things to get worse in 2016, and they did. Kiel didn’t get playing time until he saw mop-up duty in an October blowout at the hands of South Florida. Gunner saw serious action in just three games that season, turning in another six touchdowns and two interceptions. He didn’t even play on Senior Day.
I’ll admit I’m biased when it comes to Gunner. Was he the best quarterback in program history? No. But he was at UC during an incredibly turbulent period in the program and struggled through a rash of injury woes. Despite all of this, his numbers match up well with anyone else in team history, even if they were put up against competition more in line with Guidugli’s than Pike’s.
When it was all said and done, Kiel finished second in program history in touchdown passes with 56 and his +30 TD-INT ratio is tied for best in program history with Guidugli. He’s second all-time in passing yards, fourth all-time in completion percentage, and is one of just two quarterbacks in the last 20 years to crack the program’s Top 10 yards per completion rankings. Only Zach Collaros’ 13.59 yards per completion beats Kiel’s 13.53.
In my mind, one of UC football’s greatest ‘What Ifs’ (behind Texas’ extra second in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game) is Gunner Kiel’s career. What if he stayed healthy? What if he simply had stability on the coaching staff? What if, health and stability aside, he simply got more playing time as a senior? The fact that Gunner is unquestionably part of this conversation despite roughly two seasons of career playing time is astounding.
Say what you want about Gunner Kiel, but the numbers don’t lie. I, for one, just wish we got to see more of him.
Is Zach Collaros the most underrated quarterback in program history? He may not have had as many wins as Pike, as many gaudy stats as Kiel, the draft prestige of Cook, or the four years of aerial assault that Guidugli did, but Collaros was damn good.
Collaros is the only contender that was a legitimate rushing threat, running for 809 yards and 16 touchdowns over the course of his career. Collaros was just a two-year starter, but was part of three conference championship teams, including the magical undefeated season in 2009 where he filled in for an injured Tony Pike as a sophomore and kept the train on the tracks with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions while adding another four TDs on the ground.
While Butch Jones’ first season in 2010 was a disaster, Collaros did well enough in his first chance as a regular starter, throwing 26 touchdowns and rushing for another four.
As a senior in 2011, Collaros had the Bearcats in line for a BCS bowl before a gruesome injury in the West Virginia game appeared to end both his season and UC’s major bowl hopes. While the Bearcats were unable to earn the BCS berth that year, Collaros somehow managed to return for the Liberty Bowl, where he led the Bearcats past Vanderbilt.
I guess the biggest knock on Collaros is his turnover margin, which wasn’t fantastic but also wasn’t terrible. Conversely, his overall production was incredible. He racked up 67 total touchdowns and more than 7,000 total yards (second all-time) in roughly two and a half seasons. That, plus his stellar fill-in job to keep the best season in program history alive, easily gets him into this conversation.
While there’s room for debate on whether or not Guidugli is the best Bearcat quarterback of all time, he’s certainly the most prolific. Look at any career records and Gino will be at or near the top.
The perfect microcosm of his talent and longevity comes in the career passing touchdowns record. Guidugli has 78. The next closest Bearcat is Kiel with just 56. Pick any quarterback in program history and odds are Gino did it better and longer.
For as much as Guidugli impacted the record books, perhaps his most noteworthy impact on Cincinnati football is intangible. He was probably the best UC QB since Greg Cook more than three decades prior. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Gino’s last season in Clifton was the final year in Conference USA and Dantonio’s first in Clifton. He officially signaled the start of Bearcat Football 2.0.
He was the first Bearcat QB to play in three bowl games, paving the way for the Cincinnati football we know today. The Bearcats felt his impact after he graduated, going just 4-7 in 2005 before launching into the throes of the modern era: Eight wins in 2006. Ten wins in 2007. 11 wins in 2008. 12 wins and an undefeated regular season in 2009.
So, while Gino has the numbers to back up his legacy, talk to those who watched the program in the early 21st century and I bet they’ll tell you everything he did outside the lines to make the last 15 years possible.
Tony Pike wasn’t even supposed to be good.
The best quarterback in program history went without scholarship offers until after his senior season when they trickled in from Toledo and eventually Cincinnati. When he got to Clifton in 2005 on the heels of Guidugli, he was handed a grayshirt. He didn’t play in 2006, and Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State following that season. Pike had been on campus for two years and hadn’t even sniffed playing time, and now he was looking at a coaching change, which can be hell for players on the fringes of the roster. His father suggested he try out for baseball.
Brian Kelly came on board and started Ben Mauk, who led the Bearcats to their first 10-win season since 1951, but Pike saw playing time. He went 11-for-20 for 91 yards as a sophomore. In 2008, he started the offseason fifth on the depth chart (per Sports Illustrated) before clawing his way to #2 behind Dustin Grutza. Grutza broke his arm in a loss to #4 Oklahoma, Pike entered the game, and he never looked back. The Bearcats won 11 games in 2008, earning their first-ever BCS bowl appearance. They went 12-0 in 2009, narrowly missing a shot at an inconceivable National Championship Game appearance. Pike was a legitimate Heisman candidate that year.
He certainly dealt with road blocks in the form of injuries, but you wouldn’t guess it looking at his stats. He currently sits 2nd all-time in career completion percentage, 3rd in career passing touchdowns, and 3rd in TD-INT ratio at +29. He’s one of just six Bearcat quarterbacks to pass for 5,000 yards in his career. He also started the two biggest games in Cincinnati history—the 2009 Orange Bowl and the 2010 Sugar Bowl.
He did all of this in the Big East, playing the toughest competition Cincinnati has faced in their 131 seasons of football.
There are certainly arguments to be made. Some will prefer to see more than two seasons as a starter. Some will want gaudier stats. Some may even want a sustained NFL career.
However, in my eyes, Tony Pike is the best to ever do it in Clifton.