Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham was in Dayton on Monday to spread the good news about the Bearcats.
He had plenty.
After touting how the Bearcats’ College Football Playoff semifinal appearance in the Cotton Bowl was seen by 16.5 million people on Dec. 31, he noted such free advertising is impossible to duplicate.
“When you’re able to get out there in the community and drive that type of brand awareness, it really, really is a big deal for year university and I feel very strongly about that,” he said during a presentation to the Dayton Rotary Club’s weekly meeting in downtown.
He has reason to believe the best is yet to come as the athletics department he has piloted for three years prepares to join the Big 12 next year on July 1.
That will mean bigger audiences, bigger goals, new trips, new rivals (perhaps) — and more revenue.
He did not speculate on how much of a windfall the Bearcats can expect once they leave the American Athletic Conference because future deals are still being worked out between the Big 12 and its potential media partners, but it is safe to say it will be much more than Cunningham’s department is getting now.
“We feel like for a long time we have outperformed our resources, right?” Cunningham said. “We’ve battled against those top-level schools without having the money that they’ve had, and when you look at just from the financial standpoint of the media contracts that are out there last year, we had the best year that we’ve ever had at the University of Cincinnati, and we made $7.5 million dollars in television revenue. The Big 12 (schools each) made 45 million, and the Big Ten (schools each) made 65.”
Along with noting a new football facility is in the works, he outlined three areas in need of an upgrade as the Bearcats seek to compete in their new league: Athlete nutrition, mental health services and broadcast capabilities.
“Forever and ever we fed our young people,” he said. “Now we need to make sure that we’re fueling them in the right way. That’s what big-time programs do. There’s a science behind nutrition, and we need to start to invest in that.”
That is part of the “Day One Ready” campaign the schools is undertaking with the goal of raising $100 million for the move to the Big 12.
It’s a safe bet some of that money will end up going to retaining successful coaches such as Luke Fickell, too.
“We’ll need to catch up a little bit in our salaries across the board,” Cunningham said. “There’s just things like that you got to ramp up in different areas.”
Fickell received a raise to $5 million a year as part of a two-year contract extension he signed after leading the Bearcats to that Cotton Bowl last year, and Cunningham noted the ability to win at the highest level should not be a limiting factor in keeping such talents.
“There’s no glass ceiling anymore,” he said. “There’s no reason that we can’t win a national championship (in football), that we can’t go to Final Fours. There’s nothing that’s preventing us from doing that. And so it was such a big day for us to be invited into the Big 12 and have that moment.”
Cunningham came to Clifton after three years as deputy athletics director in Minnesota, and the graduate of Big 12 institution TCU has also worked at Boise State and Syracuse.
Working for the Gophers and Orange gave him first-hand knowledge of the difference between a school in the AAC and a Power 5 league, but his time at BSU might be even more valuable for the moment the Bearcats find themselves in within the national college football conversation.
The Broncos were an afterthought nationally at the turn of the century, but they have been one of the most successful teams outside of the major conferences since 2002.
Cunningham pointed to Boise State’s upset of Oklahoma in the Jan. 1, 2007, Fiesta Bowl as turning point for the program by cementing the Broncos in the national consciousness.
The Bearcats did them one better last season by making the CFP, but they came up short against the Crimson Tide.
Future expansion of the playoff field from four to 12 teams makes a return to that part of the postseason more likely, and it could provide UC with an opportunity for a breakthrough win on its home field at historic Nippert Stadium.
“Certainly everybody has a shot, a legitimate shot,” Cunningham said. “The Big 12 is going to be a heck of a conference. We’re gonna have to play really well week in and week out, but definitely. I mean that’s got to be on everybody’s radar that you could at some point host a playoff game.”
With a roster that includes Leonard Taylor (Springfield), Sammy Anderson (Trotwood-Madison), Ryan Montgomery (Franklin), Gavin Gerhardt (Xenia) and Wayne grads Blue Smith and Justin Harris, Cunningham touted the Dayton region’s role in Cincinnati’s rise both now and in the future.
“There’s such a natural connection,” he said. “Obviously we have a lot of alumni in the area, but it’s also in our recruiting base. Coach Fickell talks about a 300-mile radius around campus where he is going to really focus on his recruiting and a lot of our coaches have that same mentality. We’ve gotten so many great players from this area over the years.”