One of the most anticipated seasons in program history is just days away for the University of Cincinnati (UC) Bearcats' football team, and it has been a long time coming. The Bearcats are ranked No. 8 overall heading into the fall, and as most successful teams operate, there is a backbone to the operation. For the Bearcats, one prominent pillar is recruitment.
When head coach Luke Fickell took the reins of Bearcats' football in 2016, the team's recruiting class was ranked 74th nationally and sixth in the American Athletic Conference (AAC). Since then, the Bearcats' recruiting class has topped the AAC four times, with the 2022 class currently sitting at 33rd nationally.
Fickell's first year at the helm resulted in a 4-8 season, quickly followed by back-to-back 11-win seasons and a 9-1 2020 season.
"It takes a special kid to play here," said UC football's current director of on-campus recruiting, Pat Lambert.
Lambert and UC football do not recruit just any talented athlete. Rather, they foster relationships with athletes who fit the "Clifton-style" mentality that produces success on and off the field. The Bearcats do not have to look too far, as 28% of their current 129-player roster is filled with athletes from Cincinnati.
Leading the defense for the "Black-cats" is a squadron of hometown heroes, including linebacker Darrian Beavers, defensive lineman Malik Vann and safeties Bryan Cook and Ja'von Hicks.
The Bearcats also have their share of talent born and raised in the 513 on the offense, including junior tight end Josh Whyle and Evan Prater, the Bearcat's future slinger under center.
Lambert said the process of recruiting locally is about "Getting them to fall in love with the city and wanting to be a hometown hero."
The athletes that choose to forgo a move away from home reap the benefits of sticking to their roots and trusting their exposure to the city.
"[I] really [want] them to be that household name and play for something more than their program, to play for the city they grew up in and play in front of their family," said Lambert.
Lambert was part of the Bearcat team that claimed three Big East Conference titles from 2008 to 2012.
The Bearcats are coming off their best-recruiting class in school history and are not showing signs of slowing down. Topping recruiting charts is the new expectation of being a Top 10 program, not just a Top 10 team. "We want to be the best ever," said Lambert.
If a move to a bigger conference is on Cincinnati's radar, their time is now to prove themselves as the spotlight has never been bigger. Although the size and reputation of power five conference schools play to the disadvantage of Cincinnati recruiting, Lambert admits that recruiting truly never stops.
He says that the team's overall success of late has helped balance the difficulties the pandemic proposed on getting recruits around campus.
"It's finding the right player at the end of the day," said Lambert.