Thanks to the success of his team and its first bowl bid since the 1994 season, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe was expected to be one of the most highly sought-after coaching commodities in college football this offseason. The ACC’s Coach of the Year quickly put all of the rumors to rest, signing a contract extension Nov. 21 through 2019.
Cutcliffe’s Belk Bowl opponent, Cincinnati, was not so lucky.
Like Duke, the Bearcats had a highly-touted head coach of their own in Butch Jones, who had led Cincinnati to at least a share of the Big East Championship in two of his three seasons at the helm. Jones’ message to Cincinnati’s administration was clear—he intended to play the field as a free-agent and see what offers awaited him from other programs.
The Bearcats were all-too-familiar with this message. In recent years, Cincinnati has become a jumping-off point for a number of high-profile coaching candidates, including Jones’ predecessor, AP National Coach of the Year Brian Kelly, who departed Cincinnati in 2010 and has since led top-ranked Notre Dame to this year’s BCS Championship game, and current Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. Like Jones, both Kelly and Dantonio each only spent three seasons with the Bearcats.
Following the conclusion of Cincinnati’s 9-3 regular season, Jones began to shop around as the rumors about his next destination swirled. On Dec. 4, Cutcliffe and Jones traveled to Charlotte, N.C. to address the media for the first time since accepting their invitations to square off in this year’s Belk Bowl. Jones had recently interviewed for the head coaching job at Colorado and was expecting an offer from the Buffaloes in the coming days. Forced to dodge questions of his coaching future like bullets at the podium, Jones attempted to keep the focus on his squad’s matchup with the Blue Devils.
“That’s why we’re here today,” Jones said. “We’re just excited and it’s all about our football team. I think all you have to do is look at my past and in the past years of what’s happened. And I’m still the head football coach here. I think that speaks volumes.”
Cincinnati was given new hope the next day when Jones declined Colorado’s offer, but it was short-lived. On Friday, Dec. 7, just three days after his press conference in Charlotte, Jones shocked the college football world when he signed a six-year contract to be the head coach at Tennessee, who had fired head coach Derek Dooley with one game remaining in the season after a dismal 4-7 start and a winless record in the SEC.
“Everybody is aware of their coaching change,” Cutcliffe said. “They’ve been a really good football team. That’s one of the reasons their coach had a lot of options and opportunities that came toward him.”
With Jones’ resignation from Cincinnati, he and Cutcliffe would never meet in the 2012 Belk Bowl, yet the two remain oddly connected through the chain of events that followed.
Before Cutcliffe signed his contract extension to remain with Duke. Tennessee was rumored to be one of the head coach’s top suitors. After all, Cutcliffe had served as a position coach and offensive coordinator for the Volunteers from 1983-99. It was there that Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator of Tennessee’s 1999 national championship team—a ring he still wears to this day—and mentored one of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation in the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning.
The Bearcats wasted no time in finding their next head coach, inking Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville to a five-year contract the next morning. When Cincinnati announced the signing, it indicated that Tuberville would not be on the sidelines to coach the Bearcats in the Belk Bowl. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling will fill in as interim head coach, but will have to do so with a short-handed coaching staff, as a number of Cincinnati’s assistant coaches including offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach John Jancek, safeties coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder, offensive line coach Don Mahoney and strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson followed Jones to Tennessee. In fact, following the Belk Bowl, Stripling himself will join Jones’ in Knoxville as the Volunteers’ defensive line coach.
Cutcliffe’s first game of his head coaching career came in an eerily similar situation, taking the reins of a Mississippi team just weeks before the 1998 Independence Bowl. Despite the fact that he did not know all of his new players’ names, it did not stop Cutcliffe from implementing a new system and leading the Rebels to a 35-18 victory against Texas Tech.
“I wasn’t an interim, but I was a new head coach. I didn’t know any of the players’ names. I told them to put tape on their helmet and called them by whatever I read on their helmet,” Cutcliffe said. “If it was wrong or if the equipment people were playing a joke on me, I was calling them the wrong name. We went out and played great and won the game. I learned so much about bowl preparation from that one game, so one of the things we’ve done is we’ve salvaged a lot and saved a lot of what we did in that one game.”
The coach Cutcliffe was brought in to replace? Tommy Tuberville.
It seems the spinning of the coaching carousel has connected a number of college football’s top coaching minds over the years.