Bearcats get used to 'home'
MORGANTOWN - If Butch Jones had his druthers, he sounds like he would prefer that when his Cincinnati football team hosts West Virginia this weekend the Bearcats would really be hosting the game.
He can't say that, of course. That would destroy the company line.
So instead he talked around the issue on Monday during the Big East's weekly coaches' teleconference.
Jones and the No. 23 Bearcats (7-1, 3-0 Big East) hosts struggling West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) at noon Saturday in Cincinnati. The game won't be played at UC's cozy on-campus Nippert Stadium, though, but rather in expansive Paul Brown Stadium, the downtown home of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Home-field advantage? Well, sure. The game will be played about three miles down the road from Nippert and some 300 from Morgantown. Whatever fans the game manages to attract to the 11-year-old, 65,535-seat venue will be predominantly for the home team.
Still, one can't help but think that Jones would just as soon play this one in 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium, which has been around in one form or another since 1902.
Again, though, Jones delicately talks around the subject.
"I think the thing the thing that's been lost as we've gone on this season is that we haven't played a home game in Nippert Stadium since Sept. 22 against N.C. State," Jones said Monday. "What we've asked of this football team and the leadership that we've been provided, I can't say enough about everyone associated with our football program right now.''
Translation: Yes, we've played pretty well so far, and we've done it despite being kicked out of our own home.
It's not that Cincinnati hasn't played home games. Three of the first four games of the season were at Nippert and the Bearcats won all three against Austin Peay, Akron and North Carolina State.
But as far as UC's program has come in recent years, including back-to-back Big East championships in 2008 and 2009 (including a 12-0 regular season in 2009), what holds the school back as much as anything is its stadium. It is one of the oldest and smallest in FBS football and can't really be expanded because it is smack dab in the middle of campus.
So in an effort to enhance the program's image, two games this season were moved downtown. The Bearcats beat Louisville at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 15, 25-16, in front of an announced crowd of 40,971.
By contrast, the three games at Nippert early this season drew an average of just over 25,000. Even the nationally televised game against North Carolina State, a 44-14 win, was played in front of 6,000 empty seats.
The bottom line is that in order for Cincinnati to take the next step, it is likely going to have to not only play more games at Paul Brown Stadium, but attract crowds to those games, as well.
Jones understands that, but he would still like to have the advantage that playing a true home game affords. In absence of that, however, he and the Bearcats will continue to try to make Paul Brown Stadium as homey as possible.
"I think just in the overall familiarity of your home games, I think we're getting to that point where Paul Brown Stadium will become a home venue for us,'' Jones said. "If you practice in that stadium and your players have played a lot of home games in that stadium ... The thing that we have to continue to do is put people in the seats in order to continue to play down at Paul Brown Stadium and continue to make that a home-field advantage.
"It's just an overall familiarity of where you play and I think our kids will continue to grow accustomed to playing down there.''
Playing in an NFL stadium, of course, is nothing new for teams in the Big East. Pitt and South Florida are both visitors in their own home stadiums and Rutgers plays the occasional home game at the NFL venue shared by the Giants and Jets in New Jersey. Former Big East members Miami and Temple also regularly played games in NFL stadiums.
So how does Cincinnati make Paul Brown Stadium more like home? Well, by playing there and by attracting crowds.
"Obviously for us we need a great crowd and we need to make that a home-field advantage,'' said Jones, a former receivers coach at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez. "Anytime you're playing what is obviously a tremendous football team in West Virginia you're going to need all the help you can get. And there's something to be said about playing at home.
"But when we looked at it, we're going to do what's best for our entire athletic department and we thought going down to Paul Brown, to be able to get more people to come watch us play and the NFL amenities that it brings as we continue to grow and elevate the program, [all that] was critical.''
When the Bearcats play at Paul Brown Stadium, Jones even manages to channel his inner Norman Dale, the Gene Hackman-portrayed coach in Hoosiers who measured the height of the rims in the big-city arena.
"Again, I think the fan support is going to be important, the attendance,'' Jones said. "[But] you've got to go play the game. The football field is the same length. The goal posts are the same. And we're playing a very quality opponent. And that's what we've got to focus on, what we can control.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.