Dantonio tries to put OSU in past

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 19, 2004

CINCINNATI - Every time he looks up from his new desk, Mark Dantonio is reminded of a perilous moment in his past.

The oversized, framed photograph on the opposite wall of his coaching office shows Paul Brown Stadium filling up with fans shortly before the kickoff of Ohio State's game against the University of Cincinnati in 2002.

Dantonio was the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator that September afternoon, when Gino Guidugli's final pass fell incomplete in the end zone and Ohio State held on for a 23-19 win. The Buckeyes went on a roll, pulling off one last-minute victory after another on their way to a national championship.

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Dantonio became a hot coaching prospect along the way, mentioned as a candidate for a top job. He is finally settling into one - at the school that came within one completion of derailing that national title.

That game came to mind before he accepted the head coaching job at Cincinnati on Dec. 23, moving from a football program with one of the nation's highest profiles to one that can barely attract a crowd.

''When I took the job, I looked to see how competitive Cincinnati was,'' Dantonio said in an interview. ''They took us to the last play of the game and could have very well won the game.

''It was a situation I thought had a lot of promise, a lot of things going for it.''

There's certainly a lot of room for growth.

Bearcats football ranks below the Reds, Bengals, college basketball and high school football on the local scale of interest. Cincinnati's final game of a 5-7 season drew fewer than 12,000 fans, underscoring a lack of interest that was a factor in Rick Minter's firing.

His successor has to win some games, draw some crowds and lure some recruits with the notion that the Bearcats' move to the Big East in 2005 will put them on the big stage. The university also is in the middle of a major reconstruction of its athletic facilities that should make it more desirable.

Dantonio hopes to tap into the local fervor for high school football.

''I would like to think we'll recruit some guys in Cincinnati,'' he said. ''There's tremendous high school football in this town and it's very well supported. There's a fan base for those teams. What we have to do is attract some of that fan base and get people interested in the University of Cincinnati.''

His challenge is similar to what Marvin Lewis faced when he took over the sadsack Bengals before last season. At his first meeting with players, Lewis flashed his diamond-studded Super Bowl ring from his championship in Baltimore, giving him a credibility long lacking in the organization.

Lewis also appeared at dozens of civic gatherings, talking up the Bengals in a city that had given up on them. Fan interest slowly returned as the Bengals went 8-8 under Lewis, matching their best record in the last 13 years.

Dantonio plans to try to create interest in the community. Like Lewis, he put on his national championship ring to make a point to his new players.

''Any time you've had success and people can identify with that, it's critical,'' said Dantonio, who usually stores the bulky ring with a diamond-shaped football crest.

He was well aware of the challenges when he took the job, which allows his family to stay close to its Ohio roots. Dantonio grew up in Zanesville, was a graduate assistant at Ohio University and coached at Akron and Youngstown State. His wife, Becky, is from Akron and graduated from Ohio State.

Dantonio recruited in southwest Ohio for six years, so he knows the area. He also knows that he will be recruiting against Ohio State in some instances, an interesting role reversal.

''That will always be a tough one because that is one of the best places in America to play football,'' he said.

It's one place he can't completely leave behind.

Before a photographer started taking pictures, Dantonio decided to move his Ohio State-Michigan commemorative mug out of view. There's also that enlarged photograph of the Cincinnati-Ohio State game, which holds special significance.

On Sept. 4, Dantonio will make his debut as the Bearcats coach against his former team in Columbus, a rematch that's already getting attention.

''I didn't really think about that game when I took the job here,'' he said. ''Then players at Ohio State were saying, 'We'll see you next year.' I told them to say 'hi' to me on the sideline, and they'd say, 'We'll have something for you, coach.'''

Dantonio smiled at the friendly warning.

''I think it will be fun,'' he said.