Cincinnati, OH - Munchie Legaux could pass for one of the trainers standing around the sidelines of Nippert Stadium during practice. Just another guy in matching black-and-red shorts and a t-shirt. A hunkering, black plastic brace wraps up and down his left leg like a sci-fi exoskeleton.
He notices the second time I sneak a look at his brace, but he doesn't say anything about it. I've decided the most tactful course is to ask about rehab and downtime and school -- all of the circumstances around the horrific knee injury he suffered Sept. 7 in Cincinnati's loss at Illinois -- but not the horrific injury itself.
"I actually got to start doing upper body this week, finally," he tells me.
His football life has been consumed by a rehab schedule: up to three hours in the morning before classes, plus a few more sessions in the afternoon. And sometimes afterwards he gets to catch practice, which brings him visible joy.
"Hey yo, hey now, you better watch that," he yells with a laugh to a pair of Bearcats receivers lined up for a skeleton drill, pointing to a cornerback backpedalling before the snap.
The trainers acknowledge that in an another time and place, as in not a 2013 football program, Legaux might not be walking again, ever. He might have lost his left leg after he stretched to convert that fourth down vs. the Illini.
"When I found the femur -- found the femur -- and still couldn't even locate the tibia, I knew then we were in trouble," said Bob Mangine, UC's associate athletic director for sports medicine. Mangine called the injury the worst he's seen in his 43 years of work.
That Legaux could go from Cincinnati's starting quarterback to possibly never playing the sport again, all in the span of a yard, should qualify as the most terrible circumstance in a program's season. But at UC, it was far from it.
Terrible circumstances seem to beset Cincinnati football: coaching changes, brutal injuries, the shortest stick in conference realignment, and the unwinnable battle to stay relevant through the American Athletic Conference's murky future. And even the sudden death of a player.
UC is playing rival Louisville for the last time, maybe ever. It will watch another former Big East contemporary bolt for greener pastures and burn the bridge behind. And yet Cincinnati just keeps on, and, except when Teddy Bridgewater is involved, keeps winning football games.
"Fourteen surgeries," head coach Tommy Tuberville counts. "You have 14 surgeries from the start of [summer practice], then have a kid killed and a kid in intensive care. It was devastating. We just couldn't seem to shake negative things happening to us."
"Oh, I was just trying to make a play," a smiling Bridgewater told a throng of media after the game.
Louisville has the mysterious Keg of Nails trophy now, again, and possibly forever. Bridgewater has just won his second game in a row against UC, a 31-24 overtime thriller. It will best be remembered for a pair of miraculous, improbable plays from Bridgewater.
Trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-12 on the UC 38-yard line, he shook a dead-to-rights sack, stumbled out of the pocket and stiff-armed linebacker Nick Temple while spinning backwards into a first-down conversion.
Two plays later, Bridgewater was flushed again on third-and-8 and slung what looked to be a throwaway incompletion to avoid a sack. Except it fell perfectly into the hands of receiver Damian Copeland in the end zone. Bridgewater couldn't have thrown a much better ball had he been standing up.
In the foreground of Bridgewater's press conference, Louisville players hoist the Keg, hugging it and pondering smashing it open.
"Doesn't sound like nails!" one screams in the postgame jubilation. Next to the Louisville equipment truck, two old men with Russell Athletic Bowl lapel pins are shaking hands with Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong. They announce a few minutes later that 11-1 UL will head to Orlando to face Miami.
Above, a crowd of Cardinals fans refuse to leave, chanting as they have all night:
"ACC! ACC! ACC!"
Earlier in the evening, after Bridgewater's first touchdown, the chant had been modified to specifically troll the host fan base. Some brave Cardinals fans wandered above the Cincinnati student section, with beers in hand:
"ACC, NOT AAC! ACC, NOT AAC!"
They were met predictably by a sold-out student section braving freezing temperatures and driving rain. But even for the moment, it lacked that level of disdain one might find in, say, a Columbus, Ohio parking lot the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
"Hey, you're still Kentucky's bitch!" one student painted in black and red yelled back.
"Wait, was that about basketball?" his friend asks.
Even though it's been played 53 times since 1929, the Keg of Nails is no Iron Bowl, nor does either side seem particularly interested in advancing its animosity going forward.
On the heels of a Sugar Bowl win and basketball national championships, plus a quarterback likely going to the top of the NFL Draft, Louisville's bags are packed for the ACC. A decade-plus overhaul that's included a brand-new, NBA-worthy basketball arena (The KFC Yum! Center, opening in 2010 at a cost of $238 million), a brand-new palace of a football stadium (Papa John's Cardinals Stadium, first built in 1998 for $138 million and since expanded to seat 55,000 fans), and an overall investment in athletics made the Cardinals a fiscal fit for the ACC in the last round of realignment.
Next year Louisville will host Notre Dame and Florida State and travel to Clemson. As their players loudly celebrated with the Keg, there was little in the way of looking back. There was nothing wistful. I tried to force a question about the rivalry to Strong, who simply responded that Cincinnati was a "great opponent, and Louisville is excited about the future," as he walked away from his postgame interview.
On the Cincinnati side, the last thing Tommy Tuberville saw was the first thing he wants to fix in the offseason. Louisville running back Dominique Brown, a product of Cincinnati's Winton Woods High, accounted for every yard of the Cardinals' winning drive. On runs of six, nine, four, one, and two yards, the former Bearcats recruit hammered shut the rivalry. His two-yard touchdown made a 9-3 mark in Tuberville's first season feel somehow disappointing.
"I took this job over the phone without ever having seen anything here," Tuberville says while sitting in his office two nights prior. "Because every job I look at, the first thing I check out is the recruiting base. We've got 50 [high] schools here in a 20-mile radius, and they all play big-time football. A lot of folks fly in here to try and take those kids out of town, but that's my job over the next few years, to try and keep them home."
An ex-Miami assistant who was the first Hurricane to find a linebacker named Ray Lewis, Tuberville relishes Florida talent, but won't bank an entire roster on it. Louisville, built by a fellow Arkansas native in Strong, is what Tuberville wants for Cincinnati: the winner of local battles with a touch of warm-weather additions.
"The problem is, somewhere down the line in the last 10 years or so compared to Louisville, Louisville took a bigger jump in football than Cincinnati. That came out of the administration. We're ready now, but we've got work to do."
Louisville is no longer a rival for Cincinnati. It's now a blueprint.
There's no bad blood. Through several rounds of seismic realignment, the gentleman's agreement between athletic directors and presidents has been every school for itself.
"We're 80 miles apart. We both started as commuter schools. We share a lot of the same history, so I have no problem at all copying or borrowing from what Louisville has done and putting our flourish on it," Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock said. "I have all the respect in the world for Tom [Jurich, Louisville AD] and the job he's done. We'd be crazy not to follow that vision."
As the Bearcats have maintained winning seasons through a revolving door of up-and-coming head coaches -- Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones -- the vision of on-field success has already been realized. That should tell you what football is actually worth in the modern arms race. Cincinnati became a stalwart atop the Big East, but was passed over by the Big 12 and ACC for West Virginia and the Cardinals, programs with more revenue and bigger facilities.
Now to try and catch up. The Bearcats are taking a wrecking ball to the top half of one side of their stadium, renovating their press box into a series of luxury suites and premium seating, an $86 million project. When it's done, Nippert will boast more than 40,000 seats, but its potential will remain vast. The original lower bowl is noticeably steep, like a baby Death Valley.
When the historically ambivalent paying crowd has a reason to show up, sell out, and scream as they did against Louisville, Nippert becomes a quaint bowl of angry noise sitting under the gaze of remarkable architecture.
The Thursday night game features a noticeably packed and engaged student section. While traditional power programs have bemoaned student attendance throughout the season, UC's has actually increased, according to Babcock. Much like Louisville, UC is one of many urban public universities wanting to build ground-floor fans and another river-town team shifting its marketing away from commuters.
Babcock watched Jones leave for Tennessee after a share of the conference title last season, then set about finding a more permanent solution. Instead of plucking an overlooked coordinator like Louisville did with Strong, he opted for a proven winner in Tuberville, who wanted to come closer to home and build a more aggressive, defense-minded team. Having survived all the jihads and coups that accompany coaching SEC football in the state of Alabama, Tuberville approaches the Cincinnati problem with a charming sense of seasoned calm.
"Understand who you are, but think about where you want to get to," he explains when saying that he wants to build a roster that could compete in any conference as soon as possible, if invited.
"There's going to be a separation of the conferences. I used to not think that, but I think there's a way to do that now, and I think we'll end up in one of them," Tuberville predicts. "I think a lot of the teams in the AAC might join another league. I'm not sure if the so-called Big Five add another conference, but the way the NCAA handles things ... you used to not hear the commissioners and presidents and athletic directors as vocal as they are now. Something will happen."
Cincinnati is attempting to fortify its schedule outside of the AAC for the time being. That's a tricky proposition, as both Babcock and Tuberville are strongly opposed to UC playing one-off road games in non-conference play. The Bearcats landed one willing participant in Miami athletic director Blake James, who had Southern Miss back out of a 2014 game to pick up a bigger paycheck vs. Alabama. The Hurricanes agreed to at traditional one-and-one, with the Bearcats traveling to Coral Gables next season. That's the same year they'll go to Columbus and play Ohio State as part of an ages-old agreement that's expected not to be advanced.
Only in a waning conference like the AAC would creating a non-conference slate that includes road games at Ohio State and Miami be considered smart scheduling.
"No matter what happens, the recipe has to stay the same," Babcock says. "If there's conference realignment, we are ready, and we'll be ready. If it doesn't, and we can become the preeminent program in this league, it's the same."
While the 13-person College Football Playoff selection committee has yet to state any official rubric for its methodology, programs like UC are banking on strength of schedule becoming the new undefeated.
And that's the immeasurable victory for Louisville. Not the final Keg of Nails win, not the bigger and newer stadium. It's the fact that, simply by reaching a power conference, being included in the Playoff's field of four is as likely as winning its conference.
For Cincinnati, the program stuck closest to the wrong side of the demarcation line, the championship path is now the same as Boise State's.
"Cincinnati is already Boise," Tuberville, ever the optimist, enthuses. "They've already played as many BCS [bowls] as Boise. I think that's a good comparison."
"People asked me why in the world I'd leave the Big 12 for Cincinnati. Cincinnati played in two BCS games before I even got here. Outside of Oklahoma and Texas, who can say that in the Big 12?"
In between commercial breaks of the ESPN telecast, UC trots out a variety of faculty, committees, and players to be recognized by the crowd.
Sandwiched in that procession are Mark Barr and Javon Harrison, two freshmen wide receivers who were passengers in a one-vehicle wreck that killed freshman offensive lineman Ben Flick. The group had been traveling back from Oxford, Ohio after UC's Sept. 22 game.
It's driving rain by the time the pair is introduced, along with their first-responders and a gaggle of smiling, off-duty EMTs and emergency personnel. It's the first time Barr and Harrison have seen any kind of public crowd since the accident.
Barr looks visibly nervous. As the Jumbotron camera hits them, they're loudly instructed to "SMILE! SMILE! WAVE!" The delay of the P.A. system catches up, and the entire crowd jumps to its feet in applause. Barr's smile seems to shift from forced to genuine, almost embarrassed. The scars on his face are still visible. He's only weeks out of the hospital, with his own slate of rehab ahead.
As soon as its over, the awestruck first-responders are ushered back to the sideline, where they gather for quick selfies from the field level. Barr and Harrison are whisked back across the sideline after shaking a few hands and offering quiet thank-yous.
There isn't much in the way of emotion in the moment. Barr and Harrison make it back in time to see a UC drive deflate. The rain begins to mix with sleet. This is where they want to be. As close to their teammates as possible.
Why did Cincy and Tuberville choose each other?
A lengthy interview with Tommy Tuberville shortly after he left Texas Tech for Cincinnati. And was rumored to have left Lubbock on bad terms.
I'd asked Tuberville if, given the imposing fiscal realities of the AAC's fight for relevance and all the emotion of injuries and real-world loss, the Louisville game could become too big.
"No, not really. I don't think that's good. I've never tried to put too much pressure on kids or coaches to think that one week is a must-win."
Later, between war stories about Auburn boosters, Tuberville connects his survival in the SEC past and the fresh set of stakes in front of him.
"All of this now, the high stakes around these games. Look at the Iron Bowl last week and how different that game could've been for all of college football if Alabama was playing for another title.
"I still like being around kids, kids who love football. I like building. We've got things going in the right direction here. It's just four hours. You get 'em ready and try it make it as fun as possible.
"This is supposed to be fun," Tuberville says. "It should be fun."
Photos: Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
Read the other three pieces of this series:
- The Egg Bowl, where billboards and bluster battle to assure you we're not like those people. Not one bit.
- Clemson vs. South Carolina, overwhelming narratives. And Tajh Boyd being a down-to-earth superstar.
- Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt, which is not a rivalry. Nope. No, sir. Sure feels like one right now.