He was perfectly content. Just happy to be there. He was, in other words, ripe for a good old-fashioned kick in the rear. Tony Pike, a junior who had attempted only 20 passes in his college career, had begun the summer of 2008 as Cincinnati's fifth-string quarterback, buried on the depth chart behind an ineligible player and a future linebacker, among others. Now it was late August, and the way Bearcats coach Brian Kelly saw it, Pike was comfortably resigned to another season riding the pine. "He was caught in the same malaise the University of Cincinnati program has been caught in all these years," says Kelly. "A collective feeling of, 'We're happy to be here, but that's about it.'"
Kelly cornered Pike after a workout, and the message was simple: Go out and impress the coaches that week in practice, or get your degree and go home. "We demanded that Tony set his expectations higher," says Kelly.
It was a turning point for Pike, and a key moment for the Cincinnati football program. Pike began to shine in practice. ("It was the wake-up call I needed," the quarterback says.) He shot up the depth chart and by the season's third week was piloting Kelly's breathless no-huddle, spread offense toward a Big East championship. Now, a year later, Pike is leading a formidable team that has been college football's biggest early-season surprise in a first month that was full of surprises. Upsets have abounded; in each of the first four weeks at least one top 10 team has lost. Last week alone Ole Miss, Penn State, Cal and Miami fell victim. Cincinnati, meanwhile, keeps humming along. Yes, Cincinnati—a program whose stadium is a crumbling concrete bandbox with no luxury boxes and a capacity of barely 35,000, a program whose pinnacle before its Orange Bowl appearance last January was winning the Missouri Valley Conference title in 1964, a program that hasn't produced a first-round NFL draft pick in 38 years—is the beast of the Big East and perhaps the best team in the state of Ohio. (That includes you, Buckeyes.)
Indeed, the Bearcats—not the Bobcats, as Barack Obama proclaimed them during a campaign speech on campus last year—are a dark horse national title contender (box, below) and the toast of a sports-crazed city starved for a winner. "You couldn't give away your tickets when I was a freshman," says senior linebacker Craig Carey. "Now we're, like, the hottest ticket in town."
And the hottest gunslinger in town (Carson Palmer, step aside) may very well be the Bearcats' late-blooming quarterback, who has developed, improbably, into the Big East's top passer and has even popped up on Heisman watch lists. Against Fresno State last Saturday, at Nippert Stadium, Pike threw three touchdown passes and, for the third time in four games, for at least 300 yards. The 28--20 victory lifted Cincinnati (4--0), which was unranked at the start of the season, into the top 10 for the first time (at No. 10). "From where I was sitting a year ago, if someone would have told me I'd be here today and that the team would be where it is," says Pike, "I would have told them they were completely crazy."
After 120 years of irrelevance, Cincinnati football, like Pike, just needed a little Dr. Phil tough love. Enter Kelly, who was hired in late 2006 after building winners at Grand Valley State (Division II national champions in '02 and '03) and Central Michigan (Mid-American Conference champs in '06). The Bearcats joined the Big East in 2005, but Kelly quickly found the program to be of less-than-BCS quality. "We don't have practice fields—we practice in our stadium," he says. "[I coach] a spread, no-huddle team that has a fast tempo, and I have to do it on 45 yards while the defense is on the other side [of the field]. Are you kidding me?"
In addition to pushing for better facilities—new practice fields will open next fall, and a stadium expansion is being discussed—Kelly, 46, has demanded more from the Cincinnati press corps and an indifferent fan base. "From Day One he's shown up at everything from junior high banquets to Girl Scout fund-raisers to Catholic men's conferences," says athletic director Mike Thomas, who has seen football season tickets and his department's donor base double since Kelly's arrival.
"I realized at the beginning that I had to be at every chicken dinner, at every bar, at every community-service event, so the city could see the passion that I had for the program," says Kelly. "That was the way to build support for it—that and winning games."
If Kelly acts and sounds like a politician, it's because at heart he is one. The son of an alderman, he grew up north of Boston, in a family obsessed with politics. He was a captain of the Assumption College football team and later an assistant coach at the Massachusetts school, but he also dabbled in politics, working for a state senator and on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. (Kelly has fond memories of driving Hart around Boston in his Ford Escort.) But Kelly isn't just good on the stump. He is also regarded as one of the game's brightest minds, an innovator who has transformed the Bearcats' offense—a high-octane unit that scored its four TDs against Fresno State on drives lasting 2:12, 1:43, 2:53 and 1:45, none covering less than 71 yards—into one of the country's most dynamic. Kelly is constantly scribbling new plays in the spiral notebooks he carries everywhere ("I have a basement full of them," he says) and is always itching to add a wrinkle to a play. One day during practice last season Pike was standing on the sideline when Kelly walked over madly doodling in a notebook. "The idea was a version of a screen to [wideout] Mardy Gilyard, but he wanted a quick catch-and-throw where we'd let the defense through the line and our linemen get to the second level," says Pike. That week Cincinnati used the play against Miami of Ohio, and Gilyard scored. "I can't even count how many times we've scored on that play since then," says Pike.
A perfect regular season and an invitation to the national championship game were unimaginable before the season. But the Bearcats should be favored in each of their remaining eight games, though the schedule includes tricky trips to South Florida and Pitt and a home date with West Virginia. Cincinnati ranks 12th in the country in total offense, but just as impressive has been its defense, which lost 10 starters from last year but has been nearly immovable in new coordinator Bob Diaco's 3--4 scheme. The unit held Fresno State to three points in the second half, a week after it limited Oregon State star Jacquizz Rodgers to a career-low 3.7-yard rushing average in a 28--18 victory. Make no mistake, however: The Bearcats revolve around the cannon-armed Pike, who stands 6'6" and moves around in the pocket with surprising gracefulness.