CINCINNATI (AP) - During his first day on campus last December, new Cincinnati Bearcats coach Brian Kelly promised - no, insisted - this would happen.
He talked about competing for the Big East championship right away. He envisioned capacity crowds at a stadium that was usually half-empty. He talked about national rankings and glory days.
And he meant it.
``He got us believing: Why not us?'' cornerback Mike Mickens said. ``We're taking it to another level. We have more confidence this year.''
More than a little karma, too.
The 24th-ranked Bearcats (4-0) are off to their best start in 53 years and have their first national ranking since 1967. They moved into the Top 25 after their 40-14 victory over Marshall on Saturday night in front of the largest crowd ever at Nippert Stadium.
For the first time in decades, the football team is creating a buzz.
``I've been here for five years and I haven't seen nothing like it,'' senior safety Anthony Williams said Tuesday. ``Being inside Nippert Stadium, sold out - it just feels so good. It makes you play 10 times harder than you did before.
``As a freshman, I dreamed about it - seeing a sold-out crowd.''
Until Kelly arrived from Central Michigan, it seemed like an impossible dream. Coach Mark Dantonio made the Bearcats respectable before leaving for Michigan State, but couldn't get anyone outside the team to care. The Bearcats drew an average of 21,000 fans to 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium last season - and many of those were fans of the visiting team.
On Saturday night, that all changed.
The tarps that covered empty seats were removed for the first time in years, allowing 35,097 fans to squeeze in. Players ran over to the student section before the kickoff, and sang the fight song with the marching band in a corner of the stadium afterward.
``You've got to have a football team that people enjoy watching,'' Kelly said. ``And they're a pretty exciting football team, so people want to see them play.''
Some of the players were watching a sports channel the next day when they learned they'd moved into the Top 25, the program's latest giant stride.
``We just felt good,'' Williams said. ``We'd talked about it ever since we were freshmen - being ranked. Finally, we get to be ranked.''
How long they stay ranked depends upon how well they handle it.
The 4-0 start has included three games at Nippert and one at Miami of Ohio, a 45-minute drive north. The Bearcats make their first true road trip this week, playing at San Diego State (1-2) on Saturday night.
Kelly is doing his best to get his players thinking about everything except the No. 24 ranking. So far, he's had the right touch. He's convinced them they deserve the attention and are talented enough to keep climbing.
``When they were freshmen, they were dreaming about getting here,'' Kelly said. ``We've got a road map. I've used the same road map that I've used everywhere I've coached. We're doing the same things.''
Kelly was attractive to Cincinnati because of the way he turned Central Michigan into a winner in only three years with his no-huddle, spread offense. He also was head coach at Grand Valley State for 13 years, winning back-to-back Division II championships.
When he showed up on campus talking about capacity crowds and trophies, the public scoffed. The opening game this season drew only 20,223 fans, an indication of the abiding apathy.
Three weeks later, the Bearcats are packing the place - just as Kelly predicted.
``Maybe it's just that I'm a thickheaded Irishman that believes he can do it,'' Kelly said. ``Maybe that comes across to people at times as being arrogant. I think it comes across as being who I am and believing we can do it here. It starts with not listening to other people's expectations.''
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