Staying Home

“Sometimes, no matter how much you love something you can get sick of it.” – Mick Cronin

When Mick Cronin said those words to me last Friday in Spokane, he was not talking about his job – he was referring to the challenge of keeping his players fresh and motivated at the end of a long season. But I do think that quote helps explain his decision to consider leaving Cincinnati for another job.

Mick at NCAA (440x323)

The program was an absolute mess when he arrived following the drawn-out exodus of Bob Huggins. And rather than embracing him as a home town kid who was willing to take on a massive rebuilding project, a huge portion of the fan base was still pining for his former boss.

Mick inherited a roster with one scholarship player and no recruits in the pipeline and had to try to compete in the deepest conference in the history of college basketball.

“When I got the job, my first team meeting looked like a golf team,” Coach Cronin once told me. “It was a foursome – Ron Allen, Branden Miller, Ced McGowan, and Connor Barwin. I had a walk-on, a football player, a hurricane victim, and Cedric.”

Many of his friends in the coaching profession thought he was nuts to take on the challenge and destined to fail. But Cronin reasoned that getting his dream job was worth the time and effort required to rebuild the program.

“The Cincinnati job was obviously in a bad spot at the time, but what if I would have passed on it?” Cronin told me in 2012. “What if somebody would have come in and done a good job and rebuilt the program and I would have never had the chance again? In life, you can’t always have everything. If you get a chance to get the job that you’ve coveted your whole life since you realized that you’re a midget and your playing days are over – you can’t also want it to be in great shape.”

The program is no longer in bad shape thanks to his tireless efforts to revitalize it. Six straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, solid academic achievement, and minimal off-the-court drama are sufficient evidence that the Bearcat basketball program is infinitely stronger than the one he inherited.

So why consider leaving?

There are things at UNLV that Mick will never have at UC. First at foremost, it’s easily the most prominent sports team in the region. He wouldn’t have had to compete with the Bengals, Reds, or other college programs for fan interest and financial support.

Secondly, UNLV is a basketball school that happens to have a football team. Cincinnati aspires to play at the highest level in both sports and faces budget challenges as a result – especially outside of a Power 5 conference.

There are other things in place right now at UNLV that Mick is still hoping for at UC. The Rebels’ arena recently underwent a $72.5 million modernization project and their four year old practice facility is among the nation’s best. At UC, after the $86 million facelift of Nippert Stadium the dollars simply weren’t there to turn around and immediately begin construction on an $87 million renovation of Fifth Third Arena. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2018.

Mick Cronin has been my friend for nearly 20 years and has been a pleasure to work with. I’m grateful that he was willing to take the UC job at arguably the lowest point in program history and I applaud him for returning Bearcat basketball to its rightful place as a perennial contender. He is an excellent coach and the future is bright at Cincinnati.

A few years ago, I asked Mick about the rough times he had endured while rebuilding the basketball program at his Alma mater.

“It hasn’t been easy – I’m not going to lie – but at the same time, I think that sometimes in coaching, to get what you want, you have to be willing to take a chance and find out if you’re cut out for it,” he told me. “I don’t want to talk about how tough it’s been too much because it’s also been the opportunity of a lifetime. No matter what happens for me, I’ll always get to say that I was the head coach of the Bearcats.”

Make that IS the head coach of the Bearcats.

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Scouts Looking For Moore

On a Cincinnati team with six senior wide receivers last year, it wasn’t easy for any individual to post big numbers.

Chris Moore 1-handed TD

But NFL scouts had no trouble spotting Chris Moore who was one of only 11 receivers invited to the prestigious Senior Bowl in January. That bowl’s executive director Phil Savage recently listed Moore among the top “under the radar” prospects in this year’s draft.

“I proved to myself that I could play and compete with the best,” said Moore. “At the Senior Bowl there were a number of great athletes and that’s one thing that I wanted to do – truly prove that I could play with all of them. I feel like I came away with that.”

Moore’s athletic ability was on display again at the Sheakley Athletics Center Bubble on Monday as he was among 20 Bearcats to work out for NFL scouts and coaches at UC’s Pro Timing Day.

“It’s exciting,” Chris told me. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m just taking it all in, enjoying it, and trying to remember as much as I can. It’s incredible.”

Moore at combine (440x440)

Moore also participated in the NFL Scouting Combine last month in Indianapolis. While his 4.53 time in 40-yard dash was slower than he’s run in the past, the Tampa, FL native elected not to try for a faster time on Monday.

“I talked to all of the scouts and they said it was a good time and they were pleased with it,” said Moore. “They said that on film I show speed, so they weren’t pressing me to run the 40 again.”

If anybody doubts Moore’s speed, all they have to do is pop in the video of Cincinnati’s game against the eventual national champion Ohio State in 2014. Chris hauled in touchdown catches of 60, 78, and 83 yards against the Buckeyes (and had a 50 yard TD grab negated by a penalty). Additionally, he ranked fourth in the country last season in yards per reception at 21.8.

“One of the questions that a lot of scouts have asked me was, ‘Can you only run a deep ball?’” said Moore. “I got the chance to interview with a lot of scouts and talk to a few teams and general managers and tell them, ‘Yes, I can do it all.’ That’s what the film shows and I just had to tell them that at this school, nobody practices running routes more than us. We did that non-stop at every practice and a lot of teams don’t do that. I feel like the receivers here are more prepared than any receivers in the country.”

Moore at pro day (440x306)

At UC’s Pro Timing Day, the wide receiver drills were conducted by Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and wide receivers coach James Urban. With the recent free agent departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals appear likely to target wide receivers in this year’s draft and are undoubtedly studying Cincinnati’s six seniors: Alex Chisum, Johnny Holton, Mekale McKay, Moore, Max Morrison, and Shaq Washington.

“We all have a feeling that at least one of us is going to wind up there,” said Moore. “If it was me, it would be amazing because I’ve grown to love this city. My girlfriend is from here and I feel like I have some ties here now. It would be awesome to stay here and play in Paul Brown Stadium again and have a whole new fan base to show my talents in front of.”

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A Photo Comes To Life For Bearcats

Fortson picture on wall (207x440)

There is a giant photo of Danny Fortson in the practice gym at UC that includes a few details about his outstanding career. But that’s about all the current Bearcats know about the two-time Conference USA Player of the Year since they didn’t see him in action.

“Unfortunately, Dan was from the VHS era and our guys don’t really know too much about him,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “I wish I could show them how hard he practiced every day.”

Coach Cronin discussed that with the team on Wednesday when Fortson attended practice and shared his thoughts on what it means to be a Bearcat.

Fortson huddle (440x293)

“When one of the greatest players to ever put on the Cincinnati jersey takes the time to come to the gym and talk to the guys and motivate them and tell them that he’s pulling for them, that means a lot,” said Cronin. “I know the guys really enjoyed it and we’re lucky to have him living in Cincinnati.”

The former first team All-American was inducted into the James P. Kelly UC Athletics Hall of Fame last October and was honored on the court during a Bearcats’ home game earlier this season.

“It was my first time being here since I played,” said Fortson. “I came one other time with my daughter, but that was just briefly and I was in a box and didn’t get to experience what I experienced recently. I felt the appreciation inside. I almost cried, but I didn’t. I love the fans here. I always say that the Bearcats fans are the best fans in the city and I really mean that.”

Fortson SI cover (383x440)

The 6’7”, 260 pound power forward was among the most efficient offensive players in Cincinnati history, ranking third in field goal percentage (.565) and fourth in career scoring average (18.8).

“I had great coaching when I was younger,” said Fortson. “Plus, I ate, drank, and slept basketball. I stayed out on the basketball court from morning until night. I just loved the game.”

“What I would tell everybody about Danny is that the reason for his success regardless of his lack of athleticism was because he just refused to be denied,” said Cronin. “The guy has unbelievable toughness and wanted to make every shot. If he was 15 for 16 he was mad about the one miss.”

With his burning desire to excel, Fortson thrived under the relentless push of head coach Bob Huggins.

“Here’s a story for you,” Fortson told me. “One time, me and Bobby Brannen woke up at 4:30 in the morning our freshman year and thought we had basketball practice. We were walking to campus and Bobby looked at his watch and said, ‘Hey Dan, you know what? It’s only 4:30 in the morning.’ That should tell you how much that Coach Huggins had an influence on all of us when we played. It was really tough. He pushed us – I mean REALLY pushed us. But I tell you what, when I got to the pros it was pretty easy compared to Bob Huggins’ practices.

“I give Coach Huggins the credit for preparing me. I think he did that for every one of us and doesn’t get enough credit for it. And right now, I think you have a coach in Mick Cronin who does a lot of that. I think he’s really underrated as far as being a coach is concerned. I think you’ve got to give him some credit too.”

Fortson (295x440)

After leading the Bearcats in scoring in all three of his seasons, Fortson left UC after his junior year and was selected as the 10th pick in the NBA draft by Milwaukee.

“I knew he would make it in the pros because he would find a way to make it,” said Cronin. “He was that tough a guy and had a lot of pride in his performance. It’s hard to find a guy as competitive as he was. He had a massive chip on his shoulder every time he played basketball.”

Fortson was a prolific scorer in college, but became known for his rebounding and defense in a 10-year NBA career. He finished fourth in the league in rebounding in two of his first five seasons and led the league in offensive rebounds with the Denver Nuggets in 1998-99.

“It was a learning experience,” said Fortson. “I just remember Bob Huggins telling me, ‘You might not be a scorer in the NBA but you might be a rebounder.’ I said, ‘Yea right.’ Turns out he was right. If it wasn’t for him preparing me mentally and physically, I probably wouldn’t have been able to survive that.

“The funny thing is that I actually grew two inches before my rookie year. I remember putting on jeans and they didn’t fit, and I remember hitting my head a couple of times in my room. That was weird. I was still growing, and I think once I grew those extra two inches it was a lot easier to get that type of job done.”

Still, Fortson was shorter than most of the players he outrebounded in the NBA and the current players were surprised by his lack of height when they met him this week.

“He was a really, really tough customer,” said Cronin. “He was a great scorer at Cincinnati and a great rebounder in the NBA.”

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2016 “Recruit” Already Having Impact

Cincinnati added 23 new players on National Signing Day last month, but Tommy Tuberville’s biggest recruiting coup this year might have happened a few weeks earlier when he convinced J.B. Grimes to join his coaching staff.

JB Grimes (440x216)

The veteran offensive line coach has more than 30 years of college experience and spent the last three seasons at Auburn. During Grimes’ tenure, the Tigers led the nation in rushing in 2013 and played for a BCS Championship that season. The players he mentored at Auburn included the second pick in the 2014 NFL draft in tackle Greg Robinson, and a Rimington Trophy winner in center Reese Dismukes.

“He’s a typical offensive line coach,” said Tuberville. “He’s about 5’9” and has the voice of a 6’8” guy. That’s the type of guy that it takes to coach offensive lines. I really thrilled to have him. He’s going to be great for the program.”

The question is, how did the Cincinnati head coach lure Grimes away from a traditional SEC power?

“I had a couple of aces in the hole in getting him here,” said Tuberville. “One, I’ve known him all my life. He’s from Arkansas and I’ve followed his career and he’s followed mine. Two, his son Nick is on the staff as a graduate assistant and coaches tight ends and I think that was a lure also. I called him and took a chance that he might be interested. I think Gus (Malzahn) was making some changes at Auburn and bringing some different guys in, and I think it was just perfect timing for us to be able to lure a guy like J.B. here.”

“Coach Tuberville and I have always wanted to work together,” said Grimes. “I’m just a dumb assistant, but he’s been a head coach for 20 years. I’m a career assistant and proud of it. I’ve worked for a lot of football coaches including six or seven Hall of Fame coaches and I’m working for another one now. Tommy Tuberville is a Hall of Fame coach – he’s in the Arkansas Hall of Fame right now. I’ve learned something from everybody that I’ve ever worked for and I’ve always wanted to work for Coach Tuberville. There were other circumstances in the past where life got in the way. But this was a chance to work with a guy that I really like and really respect as a coach, and I also have an opportunity to coach with my son.”

Grimes has coached for Frank Beamer and Lou Holtz among others, and comes with the reputation for being an excellent instructor of offensive line fundamentals.

“He is truly a technique guy,” said Tuberville. “Most guys like to do the ‘Xs and Os’ and don’t like to teach. He’s a true teacher and I needed somebody to come in and get our offensive line technique-sound and that’s what he started to do from day one.”

“Man, I love him,” said junior tackle Korey Cunningham. “I love that he’s hard on us and very precise with every little step we take. I have some friends that played for him at Auburn that said, ‘He’s going to get you to the next level.’ I’ve learned more with him over the last couple of days than I’ve learned in all of my years of playing football. He’s demanding and he’s going to get it out of us.”

At Cincinnati’s fourth spring training practice on Tuesday, it was easy to see that Grimes has a passion for teaching the intricacies of offensive line play.

“We don’t score touchdowns,” said Grimes. “I tell people that if you want to rob a bank, the best place to hide is the offensive line because ain’t nobody going to look for you there. We block people, ya know? There’s nothing romantic or sexy about it. We just have a passion for it if you’re the right kind of guy. I’d like to think that I’m that kind of guy.”

A guy who is arguably Cincinnati’s most important recruit in 2016.

“He’s here to stay and loves to recruit and we’re a little bit behind in some areas on the offensive line,” said Tuberville. “He has really worked hard to try to figure out as quickly as he possibly can what we need. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

“I have no agenda,” said Grimes. “I just want to coach the five guys up front. Let’s get better and go win some football games. That’s all I want to do.”

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Tobin’s Value Is No Mystery

For several years, Bengals fans have recognized the important role that the team’s Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin has played in building one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented rosters.

Duke Tobin at combine (440x293)

But when he stepped to the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday to discuss the Bengals with the national media – the first time he has represented the team that visibly – the initial question was about his role with the franchise.

“Does this mean you’re running the show there?” asked Chris Wesseling from NFL.com.

“No,” replied Tobin. “There’s no sea change. Our operation remains the same. I was asked to come and talk and it’s a scouting event so it’s a natural thing.”

The self-effacing Tobin typically downplays his importance in Cincinnati, but his acumen in evaluating talent is widely respected throughout the NFL. In January, the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans reportedly requested permission to interview Tobin for their general manager openings but he declined to even go through the process.

“It’s flattering, but I knew early on in my job here with the Bengals that this is a place where I wanted to make an entire career,” Tobin said. “I’ve done everything that I could to build myself up within the organization, to add value every year and make that happen. I grew up with a dad who was in Chicago for 18 seasons and he did that for us and for himself and it’s the right thing to do.”

His father Bill is the former general manager of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts and Duke spent his childhood hanging around his dad’s teams.

“That’s really all I did, other than playing sports myself,” Duke told me. “When I had free time I would be up at Halas Hall being a ball boy, or working security, or pulling the nets at games, or just hanging around the locker room. So I grew up around pro football and that’s really all I’ve ever known.”

His father played a critical role in building the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 during the regular season before putting together the most dominant postseason stretch in NFL history. The Bears beat the Giants 21-0 in their first playoff game, added a 24-0 shutout of the Rams in the NFC Championship, and then crushed the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10.

Duke watched that Super Bowl rout from the Bears’ sideline.

“I’ve got great memories of that team,” he said. “They had ability, they had character, and they enjoyed the game. It was more than a job; it was their lifestyle. When I look at players today, those are the guys I compare them to. Those are the guys I’m always trying to find – Walter Payton being the number one. When you grade a guy, that’s kind of the high end of the scale. A lot of those Bears of the ‘80s shaped my opinion of what a football player should be.”

But his ability to judge talent was also shaped by his own football career. Duke was a highly-recruited high school quarterback who began his college career at Illinois where he was a backup to the eventual number one overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft Jeff George.

“It’s humbling throwing next to a guy like that because it shows all of your deficits pretty quick,” Duke said with a laugh. “When I showed up there, it was a little awe-inspiring to watch how the ball came out of his hand. He had one of the strongest arms and quickest releases that I’ve ever seen.”

After two years at Illinois, Tobin transferred to Colorado where he backed up another quarterback who went on to have a long NFL career Kordell Stewart. Both programs reached the Top 10 in the rankings while Duke was on the roster.

“I was fortunate to be on some good college teams and I think for my job right now, that helped me and shaped what I look for,” he said. “Those Illinois teams were good and then when I went to Colorado we had some very fine teams there with a lot of very good players that played in the NFL.”

Despite only starting one college game, Tobin went on to play professionally in the Arena Football League with the Orlando Predators and Memphis Pharaohs.

“We made a little bit of money and they gave us room and board and an automobile to drive, so there were some positives to it,” said Tobin. “We had a good team as well, and I think a lot of college football players don’t admit when it’s over. I probably fell into that bucket and said, ‘Hey, why not give it another year or two?’ I ended up getting hurt, and it wasn’t worth giving up your knee ligament for it for sure. I started scouting soon after that. I realized where my lot was.”

After spending four years as a scout with the Colts, Duke joined the Bengals scouting department in 1999 before becoming director of player personnel in 2002. His father joined the Bengals scouting staff the following year.

So while his 15 minutes at the podium on Thursday should not be interpreted to mean that Duke’s job has changed, it’s unmistakable that he’s happy with his current role in the Bengals front office.

“Loyalty is a two-way street,” said Tobin. “We really enjoy Cincinnati. I wanted to give my kids that same opportunity that my dad gave us to grow up in one place and establish some roots. We’re Cincinnati Bengals and I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do.”

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Newcomer Washington Is Already Leading

When Mick Cronin was sidelined for several months last year due to a health issue, he received well-wishes from all over the country. One of the people that reached out was an opposing player at a game that the UC head coach was unable to attend.

Kyle Washington vs Bearcats (416x440)

“When we played NC State and won,” said Cronin, “I’m talking to Coach Davis on the phone when they’re on their way to the plane and telling him that he did a great job and he said, ‘Hey. Kyle Washington came running over to me when I came out of the locker room to ask me how you’re doing.’ Most teenagers tend to forget about things that don’t include their iPhone or a new pair of shoes and that’s just the type of person that Kyle is. He ran right to Larry and was immediately asking about me.”

The Bearcats had recruited Washington coming out of high school before he elected to play for the Wolfpack. But after starting 43 games over two seasons, the power forward decided to change schools.

“I’m sitting at home watching ESPN and I see on the bottom of the screen that NC State forward Kyle Washington announces that he will transfer,” said Cronin. “There was an immediate scramble to get to Kyle and get him on the phone as soon as I could get his release from NC State. I spent the next three months chasing him because everybody in the country was recruiting Kyle. When you have a 6’10” guy that can shoot the ball, is aggressive, and is a great kid that has no issues and brings nothing but positivity to your program, everybody that had an available scholarship was trying to sign him.”

In early July, Washington announced he would play his final two college seasons at Cincinnati.

“Coach Cronin was the first one to let me know that he wanted to offer me a scholarship coming off of my sophomore year,” Washington told me. “I did have a lot of options, but at this point, it was really about knowing what I had to improve on and Coach is a great defensive mind – he’s a great basketball mind in general. He was letting me know that you need to come here because I can really turn you into a great basketball player. He has taught me so much in the few months that I’ve been here.”

Kyle Washington (440x275)

Washington is practicing with the Bearcats this year before returning to action next season.

“To tell you the truth, it’s OK for me right now because I’m learning so many different things that I had to learn,” said Washington. “On my official visit, Coach Cronin let me know exactly what I could do and he said exactly what I needed to improve on.”

One thing Washington didn’t need to be taught when he got to Cincinnati was how to compete on a daily basis.

“I play with a lot of passion and I never take a day at the D-I level for granted,” said Washington. “A lot of people do, and in our game we should never take that for granted. I’m a high-intensity guy – that’s how I play – and I’m high-intensity off the court too. I just love to play and that’s where that passion comes from.”

“Kyle is a great leader for our team,” said junior Kevin Johnson. “I’ve known him coming up through AAU basketball and he brings energy, effort, and toughness to our team every day. He enjoys the game and has great pride in being a Bearcat now.”

“He’s a very competitive guy,” said sophomore Gary Clark. “When we’re doing drills, we always partner up because he’s always going at me and I’m always going at him. We’re making each other better and he’s pushed me to be more competitive.”

The Bearcats will lose two key big men at the end of the year in seniors Octavius Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry, but they’re confident that Washington will help fill the void next season.

“We know what to expect from him and this is a good process for him,” said Johnson. “He gets a front row seat to all of the games and a front row seat to us as players. He knows how to work with us, and we know how to play with him. I am definitely looking forward to playing with him next year.”

Kyle is already helping the team as a leader.

“We put a lot of time into character development and trying to help guys grow up and get ready for the real world but Kyle Washington doesn’t need a lot of help with that because he has great parents,” said Cronin. “He comes from a great family and is a very polished young person.”

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K-Mart’s Memories Begin With First Practice

When you think of Kenyon Martin’s brilliant career at Cincinnati, what highlight immediately comes to mind?

Kenyon block (440x327)

Is it one of his two triple-doubles? Is it the blocked shot off of Xavier’s Lloyd Price that sailed out of bounds on the opposite end of the court? Is it the game at DePaul when he scored 21 points in the second half to rally the Bearcats from a 17-point deficit? Is it Senior Day when he wiped the tears out of his eyes after a lengthy bear hug with Huggs and scored 23 points in his final home game?

Kenyon’s fondest memory from his Bearcats career will undoubtedly surprise you.

“Probably my first practice,” he told me. “I would say my first practice because of everything that led up to it.”

To understand that answer – and the person that gave it – you have to turn the clock back to the fall of 1996 when Martin was ruled academically ineligible and couldn’t practice or play until January.

“I had to miss the first part of my freshman year because of my test scores and all of that crap that goes on with the NCAA,” said Martin. “So when I finally got to take part in that first practice, I knew that I was going to be able to play college basketball and I was going to make the best of it. It was my opportunity and somebody believed in a kid from Dallas, Texas. That meant the world to me.”

The beginning of his college career came late, and the end of it arrived too soon when Kenyon broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament before being named the National Player of the Year. To this day I marvel at the composure he showed in handling such heartache.

Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin answers questions in the locker room after Cincinnati's 68-58 loss to St. Louis in the Conference USA tournament in Memphis, Tenn. on Thursday, March 9, 2000. Martin broke his leg early in the game. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“It was minute compared to the things I had been through leading up to that injury,” said Martin. “Me and my mom being homeless at times and the things we went through as a family – on a scale of life, (the injury) was minute. If I was able to walk again, I was going to play again. I’m a strong-willed person and I don’t get down too easily. That was one of the times that I probably should have been down, but I was just worried about the guys and how they were going to react.”

After rehabbing the injury, Martin was picked first overall in the draft by the New Jersey Nets and embarked on a 15-year NBA career that came to an end last season. He played in the All-Star Game in 2004, and appeared in back-to-back NBA Finals with New Jersey, losing to the Lakers in 2002 and the Spurs in 2003.

Kenyon Nets dunk (440x440)

“I had a great run,” said Martin. “Everybody doesn’t get to win it all and we all know that. There have been some guys on that ‘50 Greatest Players’ list that didn’t win a championship and they get picked on, but I had a great run and I have no regrets. Every day that I stepped on the court I gave it my all.

“If you put your jersey on and stepped on to that court to face me, you knew you were in for a dogfight. I knew no other way to play the game. I came in with that mentality and left with that mentality. That’s still my mentality. I take the game of basketball very, very personally. And when we’re in-between that 94-by-50 feet, everybody can feel it. No one is exempt.”

At the age of 38, Martin now makes his home in California where he is trying to make up for lost time with his family.

“I have three girls and two boys – the oldest is 15,” he told me. “Everything revolves around them which I am more than OK with. I’ve been on the road playing for so many years that I missed out on birthdays, school plays, basketball games, and ballet recitals, so being able to be there now is well worth it.”

He left home this week, along with former teammate Shawn Myrick, to attend the Bearcats’ games against Memphis and Tulane and the practices in-between.

“The players see that Kenyon and Shawn flew here from California because they care about the program, and it helps them realize that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “They see the local guys come around often and that matters, but it really means something when someone of Kenyon’s magnitude comes in from California to spend time with them.”

Kenyon honored (365x440)

And it meant something to Kenyon when he walked on to the court in the first half of the Memphis game and received a lengthy standing ovation.

“It was chills,” said Martin. “I haven’t been on that floor since Senior Day. It’s been a long time coming and it was a great reception. It was a great, great feeling.

“Now that I’m not playing, I’ll be back a lot more.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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McCarron Looks Ahead After Heroic Effort

As he packed up his locker on Monday, AJ McCarron wore an Alabama sweatshirt and hat. He was obviously looking forward to seeing if his alma mater would beat Clemson later that night for college football’s national championship.

“I’m going to be sitting at the house cheering them on and I can’t wait,” McCarron told me. “It’s an awesome opportunity for those guys and it’s going to be a blast. It’s not nerve-wracking to just sit back and watch the game.”

I’m sure he enjoyed watching ‘Bama win another title, but I’m also certain that McCarron would have rather been preparing for a second round playoff game in New England.

McCarron smoky entrance (440x311)

Statistically, the 25-year-old quarterback did not have a great performance in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, going 23-for-41 for 212 yards and a passer rating of 68.3. But in the fourth quarter with the Bengals trailing 15-0, McCarron calmly directed the team on three straight scoring drives to give Cincinnati a 16-15 lead with 1:50 remaining.

“Heck, a fourth quarter comeback like that?” said Kevin Zeitler. “You can’t say enough about it. He was able to deal with everything that came his way and he was fantastic.”

“I’m proud of him and proud of what he did, and I know he’ll be nothing but better next season and that’s good for us,” said Marvin Lewis.

“It’s a great feeling when the guys rally around you and everybody believes,” said McCarron. “The whole game when things weren’t going great, guys stayed calm. It’s just a special group that I get to play with and I love every one of them. I had a blast. It was an honor to get to play with them. I know that AD (Andy Dalton) will be back next season, but it was fun.”

And while McCarron came closer to leading the Bengals to a postseason win than Dalton has been able to thus far, the second year quarterback says he has not created a quarterback competition for next season. Dalton led the AFC in passer rating at 106.3 and Cincinnati had a 10-2 record when he broke his thumb.

“This is AD’s team,” McCarron told me. “I am just going to go out and work my tail off and whatever happens happens. But AD is the quarterback and my job is to push him and help make him the best QB that he can be and let the chips fall where they fall. But I support him 100%. I’ve always said that he’s like a big brother to me and I look up to him. That’s the way that it’s going to stay.”

After sitting out his rookie year while rehabbing a shoulder injury, McCarron completed 64% of his passes this season, with 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and a passer rating of 89.7 (including the playoff game). As a result, the Bengals will enter 2016 feeling highly confident about their backup quarterback for the first time in several years.

“The best since 2004 or ’05 with Jon (Kitna) and Carson (Palmer),” said Coach Lewis. “We feel pretty good about things.

“At this point a year ago, we weren’t sure about AJ and his development. We assumed and hoped, and it has worked out.”

Unfortunately, the wild card playoff game didn’t work out, as the Bengals self-destructed in the final two minutes.

“It feels like a bad, bad dream and you’re just waiting for somebody to wake you up,” said McCarron. “It’s tough – especially knowing how hard we’ve worked as a group all season long. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to make it to the playoffs in general. There are a lot of teams that don’t have the opportunity that we had. It hurts, but the only thing we can do is look forward and take each day to get better.”

McCarron in playoff game (440x322)

As impressed as I was by McCarron’s play on Saturday night, I was equally impressed by how he handled himself in his postgame news conference. He sounded like a 10-year veteran as he handled a gut-wrenching loss with class and stressed the importance of his teammates sticking together.

He reiterated that message on Monday.

“When things get tough, it’s easy for people to point fingers and run the opposite way,” AJ told me. “In college we always said, ‘Who do you want in your foxhole?’ You want guys that can have your back and have your six. Who do you want in that hole with you? The worst-case scenario would be for the team to divide and take steps backward.”

There are likely to be significant changes on the Bengals roster and coaching staff next season, and McCarron is eagerly anticipating a major change in his personal life as well. AJ and his wife Katherine are expecting their first child – a son – in late May.

“Raymond Anthony McCarron III and we’re calling him Trip,” he said.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Just Once

Just once… Can’t we figure out what we keep doin’ wrong. Why the good times never last for long. Where are we goin’ wrong? – From the 1981 song “Just Once” by Quincy Jones and James Ingram.

One minute and 36 seconds left.

The Bengals had the lead and the ball.

The most dramatic playoff win in team history was theirs.

And ours.

After seven straight postseason losses over the course of 25 years, it was total catharsis for the franchise and the city.

“For the 20 seconds after Burfict’s INT, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Bengals fan Ethan Fields in an e-mail. “My heart was fluttering like it was my wedding night and I was on cloud nine.”

The elation actually lasted a little longer than that. From Burfict’s interception to the start of the next play, roughly 90 seconds of real time elapsed.

The agony that followed is going to be remembered for ages.

“Talk about a roller coaster of emotions,” said George Iloka.

In an attempt to run off as much of the clock as possible and force the Steelers to use their three timeouts, the Bengals handed the ball to Jeremy Hill. I honestly believe that every team in the NFL would have done something similar.

But Hill added his name to a list that includes Earnest Byner and Tony Romo for “most costly fumbles in NFL postseason history”.

“I thought I had the ball tucked in there pretty tight, but it came out,” said Hill. “It’s inexcusable.

“I let the fans down, I let the coaches down, and I let my teammates down. It’s on me.”

But not entirely. The Steelers started at their own nine yard line needing to drive roughly 60 yards in 1:23 to give Chris Boswell a shot at a game-winning field goal. Due to his injured shoulder, Ben Roethslisberger was not able to throw the ball deep.

But Big Ben managed to complete five short throws and Pittsburgh drove to the Cincinnati 47-yard line with 22 seconds to go. The Steelers were out of time outs and the Bengals were still in position to win the game.

Cincinnati basically waived a white flag by drawing two yellow ones.

Steelers Bengals Football

A high pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown sailed incomplete, but Vontaze Burfict was penalized for unnecessary roughness for hitting Brown in the head. Then Adam Jones was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for his heated reaction to trash-talking Steelers coach Joey Porter. Thirty yards in penalties moved the ball to the 17-yard line and Boswell’s 35-yard field goal ended the Bengals season.

“You can’t have stupid penalties at times like that,” said Andy Dalton.

“You’ve got to be poised and you’ve got to keep playing,” said Marvin Lewis. “There are just things that you’ve got to pull away from.”

“That’s what coach has been saying to us all year,” said AJ McCarron. “It’s going to be hard to win games when we can’t control that.”

The NFL Network’s Michael Silver has dubbed it, “The Meltdown at Paul Brown.”

As he faced the media firing squad after the game, Andrew Whitworth was grilled on the Bengals lack of discipline in the final 30 seconds.

“How hard is it to maintain composure in an atmosphere and a game like this?” asked The Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty.

“I think if you have discipline it’s not that hard,” said Whitworth. “You’ve got to be disciplined and understand the ultimate goal.”

“Who does the lack of discipline fall on?” asked CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco.

“I’m a leader so it falls on all of us,” replied Whitworth. “If any of us have let it slip, or if any of us have not let it be important, then it’s all of our mistake. Discipline is something to me that’s taught throughout the year. It’s not a one-time moment thing. It’s an every-day thing. It’s just like raising my kids. Discipline is something that I have to be consistent every single day with. I have to be consistent on things that are important, and as a leader of the football team it’s the same thing.”

“At the end of the day you’ve got to keep your cool,” said Dalton.

The late collapse negated an incredible comeback. Down by 15 points to begin the fourth quarter, the Bengals scored on three straight possessions and took the lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to A.J. Green with 1:56 remaining.

Green playoff TD vs Steelers (440x301)

“Everybody was so calm on that last possession,” said McCarron. “It was kind of creepy. It was like everybody has ice water in their veins. Everybody was calm and thinking that we were going to go and make a freaking play.”

“I’m just proud of AJ man,” said Whitworth. “AJ McCarron came in in a tough role – to take on a team that is a contender and have to stand in there and figure everything out in the manner that he had to do it. It wasn’t going to be clean, it wasn’t going to be pretty, we knew things were going to be ugly at times, but the kid just went about it with every bit of effort that he had. I couldn’t be more proud of him for that.”

Instead of getting credit for his first 4th quarter comeback as an NFL quarterback, McCarron watched helplessly as Roethlisberger recorded his 38th.

“This one just really sucks,” said McCarron. “We were so close to bringing this city what it deserves – especially against Pittsburgh. I’m at a loss for words.”

“I can’t fathom it right now,” said Iloka. “It’s déjà vu. It literally feels like yesterday we were having the same talk about losing in the playoffs. Maybe it feels like yesterday because we’ve had this conversation four times. It’s frustrating.”

The Bengals started the season 8-0 for the first time in team history. They finished the regular season 12-4 to tie the franchise’s best record in a 16-game season. Instead of celebrating an AFC North title and what should have been Cincinnati’s first postseason win in 9,135 days, they will face the same old question for at least another year: Why can’t you win a first round playoff game?

“Guys work hard man,” said Iloka. “From top to bottom, everybody in this organization works hard and I don’t know how we keep losing every year to teams that quite frankly don’t have more talent than us. This is a really talented team in terms of athletes and weapons. We’re stacked and the fact that we keep losing in the first round – I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t have the answers. I really don’t.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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“The Journey Is Just Beginning”

Last Tuesday at noon, just seven hours after the Bengals got back from a physically and emotionally draining loss at Denver, Marvin Lewis sat down with Dave Lapham and me to tape his weekly TV show.

Marvin cold night (440x302)

It was roughly the 80th time we’ve recorded “Bengals Weekly” together and I saw something that I had never seen on the show before – Coach Lewis getting choked up.

It happened when Lap ended our interview segment with the following question: “At this stage of the season, what are you most proud of about your football team?”

“How hard they play and how disappointed we are when we come up short,” Marvin said as his eyes watered a bit. “It’s hurts them. And then they come back to work, tighten their resolve, put their heads down and work harder.”

That’s a coach that is proud of what he’s built in Cincinnati, and Marvin Lewis has every right to be.

While the 2015 Bengals will ultimately be judged on whether they can end the franchise’s 24-season drought without a playoff win, the players and coaches deserve a ton of credit for putting themselves back into a position to do something about it.

The Baltimore Ravens have missed the playoffs in two of the last three years. If the Jets had won on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have missed the postseason for the third time in four years. The Buffalo Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 years. In other words, getting there is not a given.

But for the fifth straight season and sixth time in seven years, the Bengals are one of 12 teams to make it through the regular season meat grinder and still have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.

“This is just our first step,” said Coach Lewis. “That’s what our guys know. The journey is just beginning.”

“The playoffs are a brand new season and I think everybody realizes that you have to be at your best,” said Kevin Zeitler.

McCarron vs Ravens (440x293)

The Bengals might not be at their best next week unless Andy Dalton makes a remarkably fast recovery from a broken thumb. The question is, will they still be good enough to win? In his three starts since Dalton’s injury, AJ McCarron has four touchdown passes, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 100.1. If he continues to avoid turnovers, the Bengals defense will keep them in any playoff game that the second-year quarterback starts.

“We didn’t execute everything the right way, but the good thing is that we won,” said McCarron after Sunday’s victory over Baltimore. “It’s not always going to be roses, but we fought hard and we got the win.”

Cincinnati is 2-1 in AJ’s three starts, but the Bengals’ confidence in their young quarterback might have grown the most from the only one he lost – the overtime thriller in Denver.

“That was a pressure-packed night,” said Lewis. “So that was a huge step in his development to go through something like that where every play was win-or-lose on each and every snap. There was a lot of tension, and he was able to stay calm through that, deliver the football, run the offense, and make good decisions.”

So now, we begin what is going to feel like the longest week in history. I promise you that the days are going to crawl as we eagerly anticipate the third and final showdown this year in what’s become one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh.

“It’s going to be a fun game,” said Tyler Eifert. “Obviously this rivalry has heated up in recent years – especially this year. It will be an awesome atmosphere here at Paul Brown.”

“We know that they’re one of the best teams in the league,” said Coach Lewis. “So if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

For Michael Johnson, the opponent at this point doesn’t matter.

“Whoever we’ve got to play, put the ball down and let’s get after it,” Johnson told me. “Whoever. Wherever.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1

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