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The Man In The Box
'14 Bowl Upsets Champ

Cincy hopes it has Mark of a winner in coach Dantonio

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</TD><TD noWrap>Aug. 31, 2004
By Gregg Doyel
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
Tell Gregg your opinion!
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</TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE><TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width="100%" border=0><TBODY><TR vAlign=top><TD width=10> </TD><TD>CINCINNATI -- For new Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio, Saturday will be the easy part.

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</TD><TD width=15> </TD></TR><TR><TD width=150>Mark Dantonio has shown no interest in leaving his Midwest roots.(AP)</TD><TD width=15> </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>The Bearcats will open the season and the Dantonio Era at No. 9 Ohio State in front of more than 100,000 people at Ohio Stadium, where the Buckeyes have never lost a season opener. Come to think of it, the Buckeyes have never lost an opener on the road, either; in 113 seasons of college football, Ohio State has gone 109-0-4 in Game 1.

This year, it's Cincinnati's turn to tumble.

Dantonio didn't come to Cincinnati to lose, but he's realistic. He spent the previous three seasons at Ohio State as defensive coordinator, so he's aware which team is bigger, stronger and faster.

With eight of his players in attendance, Dantonio reminded the local media Monday of this game's place in history.

"It's not the ultimate game," he said. "It's not the Super Bowl. It's just a game, and we should keep that in perspective."

Frankly, the Bearcats are supposed to lose Saturday. They might not -- they almost beat eventual national champion Ohio State in 2002, losing 23-19 after dropping a pass in the end zone in the final seconds -- but let's be realistic.

The Bearcats haven't beaten Ohio State in 107 years. If they don't beat the Buckeyes on Saturday, nobody in Cincinnati will be all that disappointed.

That's why Saturday is the easy part for Dantonio. There are no expectations Saturday. The expectations begin in the following weeks and the following seasons as he tries to build on the foundation laid by Rick Minter.

Minter was fired after last season with a 53-63 record in 10 seasons. It had been a half-century since a Cincinnati coach was demonstrably better, and that guy was a Hall of Famer.

Sid Gillman went 50-13-1 at Cincinnati from 1949-54 before becoming the offensive innovator who ushered professional football into the modern era.

Dantonio was hired to usher Cincinnati football into relevance. Minter couldn't do it, even if the Bearcats' number of bowl appearances doubled -- to six -- under his watch. That success was met with a yawn at home, with Nippert Stadium only once drawing as many as 33,000 fans to a game

</TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>Dantonio won't draw fans with his coaching resume or his personality, though he has a subtle sense of humor and seems like a first-class human being. Earlier this preseason, he gave his players a 341-page book he calls a "Winner's Manual." It has inspirational quotations and Bible verses, but no plays.

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"At first I kind of questioned it," senior quarterback Gino Guidugli said. "But ... if you read a couple quotes, it makes you think about certain things."

On Monday, Dantonio seemed most enthusiastic when asked about tailback Richard Hall, an Ohio State signee who transferred to Cincinnati after failing to meet the NCAA's initial eligibility requirements.

Dantonio called Hall "a good man -- a good Christian man," and added, "what I'm excited about the most is he's going to graduate."

Regarding his two coaching mentors, Dantonio is more like earnest Jim Tressel than emotional Nick Saban.

"I don't know if you guys noticed," he said, smiling at himself, "but I'm not a big rah-rah guy."

Dantonio will have to generate interest with victories, and that's where his task is going to be exceedingly difficult.

This season, Cincinnati has more games on the road than at home, and its non-conference schedule -- at Ohio State, against Miami (Ohio) and at Syracuse -- is the third-toughest in Division I-A, based on 2003 records.

Next season will have other difficulties. The Bearcats will suffer enormous losses on both sides of the ball: both quarterbacks, including the record-setting Guidugli; their top two receivers, starting tailback and entire offensive line; six of seven starters on the defensive front and half the secondary.

Hamstrung by budgetary and historical restraints, Dantonio's coaching staff is painfully young. His top assistants -- Don Treadwell on offense, Pat Narduzzi on defense -- have been coordinators for just one season each.

Other than defensive line coach Ted Gill, a Minter holdover, Dantonio's other six hires have three combined years of experience as full-time assistants in Division I-A. All three of those years belong to running backs coach Tim Hinton, who spent the past decade as a high school coach.

Four of Dantonio's assistants were graduate-assistants last season, three from Ohio State.

That's not the prototypical staff of a team in a Bowl Championship Series league, but that's what Dantonio will be running next season when Cincinnati leaves Conference USA for the Big East.

That bump in football credibility, combined with the scheduled completion of an $80 million, multi-sport facility geared heavily toward football, should give Dantonio a boost in recruiting.

If Dantonio does put Cincinnati on the national football map, he might do something really unexpected and stay put.

He grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, and has been coaching in the Midwest since 1981. That streak could have ended in 2000 when Saban left Michigan State for LSU and asked Dantonio, his secondary coach, to come along. Dantonio declined.

"I just wanted to stay in the Midwest," he said. "I didn't want to move to Louisiana. This is where I wanted to be. It was (not wanting to uproot) family, and also I just didn't want to become a guy who moves to Louisiana and then two years later moves somewhere else."

A dependable guy, Mark Dantonio. It'll take a lot more than dependability to make a winner of Cincinnati football, but it's a start.