CINCINNATI — Luke Fickell does not recall getting much, if any sleep, Saturday night.
First, there was the on-field celebration with his team — and seemingly the entire campus — after completing a perfect season that would end up making playoff history. Then there was the gathering back at his house, where close friends and family gathered to commemorate the occasion.
Before he knew it, Fickell had to get to the office even earlier than usual on Sunday morning, meeting recruits and preparing for the all-important senior banquet, planned weeks earlier.
“Sleep is overrated,” Fickell said.
The banquet is usually scheduled for noon. But this year, they had no way of knowing it would turn into a massive watch party.
It just so happened the College Football Playoff selection committee would release its playoff pairings at 12:15 p.m. Thirty minutes before the show began, in a quiet moment in his office, Fickell said he felt optimistic his Bearcats would be in the top four, but at the same time, “Nothing ceases to amaze me.”
Maybe that is because every single time a Group of 5 team has finished undefeated in the BCS and College Football Playoff eras, they have never gotten a chance to play for a national championship. Many college football fans and pundits, who have watched Boise State and TCU and UCF and yes, Cincinnati, get summarily dismissed, never thought this day would come.
Fickell said he didn’t want his players to believe they were carrying the banner for other conferences, but there is no way to diminish the magnitude of the moment. Cincinnati will always be the definitive torch bearer for Group of 5 teams in the four-team playoff system.
This day would always belong to them.
“They’ve had to prove it, and they’ve had to go through their ups and downs,” Fickell said. “A lot of doubters, but they’ve been able to handle all that and continue to do what’s most important, and that’s perform on the field.”
But it was not always easy. Fickell gave ESPN a window into the mounting pressure and stress that both he and his players had to fight through as the season progressed. At one point, he even wondered whether Cincinnati would have the energy to finish the season the way it had to — with strong performances to leave no doubt that it would be deserving of consideration to finish in the top four.
Though Fickell batted away questions about the playoff each week during the season, he did not live in a vacuum. Though no Group of 5 team had ever made the playoff, Cincinnati entered the season with as good a shot as any to break through the glass ceiling that had always existed for programs like this one.
That’s because it had a veteran group with its best players returning: quarterback Desmond Ridder, cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, and 32 seniors in all to lead a team that went undefeated in the 2020 regular season before losing a last-second heartbreaker to Georgia in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
“I always felt like it might be a two-year process,” Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham said. “When I took this job, we talked about what would it ever take? I think we need to anchor ourselves high enough to be in consideration at the very beginning of the year, which we weren’t necessarily at last year. Then we needed to have a schedule that set up to where if we did run the table, it was a strong schedule, and that Notre Dame game was absolutely key to the whole season, obviously. And I knew that the American Conference always had really good teams, so I felt good that we could do it.”
Cincinnati started the year ranked No. 8 and quickly justified it with road victories against Indiana and Notre Dame.
As the wins piled up, so did the questions. Were the Bearcats winning by enough? Could they really compete with the Power 5 elite? Was the committee going to find a way to keep them out?
Fickell never addressed any of that with his team, but he knew if his players could turn in a strong month to close the season, that’s all the proof the selection committee would need.
As Fickell hoped, Cincinnati put together one strong performance after another in the final weeks of the season, including a dominant 48-14 win over ranked SMU.
But then, the coaching carousel went wild. The USC job — once linked to Fickell because its AD hired Fickell at Cincinnati — went to Lincoln Riley, while Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly headed to LSU. And suddenly, another question wouldn’t go away.
Would Fickell leave the Bearcats for a bigger job?
Fickell says there were several schools that wanted to talk to him in the past few weeks, but he was adamant that he would not talk to anyone until the day after the AAC championship game.
“Those people want to talk, they don’t want to wait,” Fickell said.
“Then, you’ve got your own kid on the team and he starts calling his mom, ‘What’s going on?’ he added. ‘Nothing. I tell you the same thing I tell the team.’ It’s very fortunate that we’ve got the older crew that we’ve got that did a phenomenal job of just handling — whether it was the playoffs or not playing well enough — it didn’t get to them too much.”
Now the Bearcats just needed to prove that one more time, against No. 21 Houston in the American title game, and hope the committee wouldn’t let No. 5 Oklahoma State jump them with a Big 12 title.
Less than an hour before kickoff, as school and conference officials prepared for the game, Oklahoma State lost in stunning fashion to Baylor. Phones started buzzing with the news. American commissioner Mike Aresco got a call from his wife, who described the final goal-line plays as Aresco listened incredulously.
It became clear: Six inches might very well decide Cincinnati’s playoff fate.
All Cincinnati had to do was win.
The first half was a close, back-and-forth affair. In the third quarter, Cincinnati capitalized on several Houston mistakes and blew the game open with three touchdowns on three straight possessions. As the fourth quarter wore down, the anticipation inside Nippert Stadium built to a frenzy.
John Widecan, associate athletic director for football operations, looked around the stadium and marveled. Widecan has worked at Cincinnati since 1989 and has seen big moments inside the program — including an undefeated season in 2009, appearances in the Orange and Sugar Bowls, and several other field storms. But absolutely nothing prepared him for what was about to unfold.
“When we got the stop, and there’s two minutes left, and we could take the game down to about 30 seconds, to see all the lights from people’s phones in the stadium, and the sky cam going all over the place, there was nothing like it,” Widecan said.
Fans started to line the aisles, planning to make their way to the field. Cunningham said that before the game started, they planned for a moment just like this, and agreed the safest way to proceed would be to lift the gates that led to the field to avoid a stampede. Sure enough, when the game ended with a 35-20 Cincinnati victory that left the Bearcats as the only undefeated team remaining, the fans streamed forward.
But it was controlled chaos. Nobody pushed and shoved or threw elbows. The euphoria in the moment swept everyone into a sea of raised camera phones and joyous celebrations as “We Are the Champions” played in the background. They all knew — players, coaches, support staff, fans, the mayor of Cincinnati (also in attendance) — that this all but locked up a top-four spot.
“So many people that had worked here previously, former players, people that have really been invested in this program, donors, were just in tears,” Cunningham said. “The emotion got to them because it’s so hard to get to that point. It’s so hard to go undefeated, and win 13 straight and be able to celebrate. That’s what was really, really cool. I’ve been here a short time. But those people that invested for years and years, and this is their passion — I love watching their faces and their reactions.”
Cunningham and his wife ended up celebrating with burgers at a local steakhouse, while Fickell celebrated at home.
While Fickell met with recruits in the morning, Cunningham, Widecan and others on the executive team started mapping out their possible destinations and reserving chartered planes to take them on Dec. 26 to either Miami for the Orange Bowl or Dallas for the Cotton Bowl. Orange Bowl officials were in town for the game Saturday, and had been preparing to host Cincinnati for weeks — based on the belief that No. 1 Georgia would play No. 4 Cincinnati in South Florida. So Cincinnati figured its likely destination was Miami.
But after Georgia lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game, the calculation changed.
At a little past noon, Fickell entered the banquet room inside Nippert Stadium. The AAC champions sign still flashed on the stadium scoreboard outside the windows. He grabbed the microphone and told everyone they would turn the overhead screens to the selection show.
Then players and their families started getting up for the buffet. Fickell had a muffin and bacon on his plate and stood in the back of the room. Quiet anticipation filled the air, but a larger sense of inevitability seemed to grab hold.
Because 12 hours earlier, those inside and outside the Cincinnati program had largely realized this was actually, really, truly happening: They would be the first Group of 5 school to ever make the playoff.
When the announcement came and the Cincinnati logo flashed on the screen in the No. 4 position, the room cheered. Ridder conceded later, “I would definitely say the families and the parents and siblings were cheering a lot more than we were. We’re excited to get in there, but we’re just ready to play football.”
Fickell stood toward the back of the room, watching on and feeling particularly gratified. In the room around him, he had many sixth-year seniors who made the determination they would come back for one more year — taking advantage of an extra season after COVID-19 turned 2020 into the most grueling grind they had ever experienced.
He saw Ridder, who huddled with quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Gino Guidugli as the two talked about checking off every box on a checklist Ridder made for himself when he decided to return. It was lost on no one that Guidugli helped build the Cincinnati program during his time as quarterback from 2001 to ’04.
He saw Bryant and Myjai Sanders, instrumental in their returning to school, too. “This was part of the reason for me to come back,” Bryant said. “Not just for opportunities like this, but to be a leader. When me and guys like Des and Myjai leave, we want to be remembered as great leaders.”
Perhaps they will be remembered for more than that.
When Ridder was deciding whether to come back, he said the thought of a playoff spot briefly entered his mind.
“But back then, it was, ‘OK we made it to a New Year’s Six last year, so if that’s what it’s going to be and they don’t put us in, it was going to be win a New Year’s Six bowl,” Ridder said.
“Now it’s the playoffs. Now it’s to win it all.”