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November 15, 2007

Senior Legacy

Saturday, the University of Cincinnati will say goodbye to 19 seniors on the football team as they play their final game at Nippert Stadium.

Those 19 players have seen much change since arriving in Clifton. They were here when UC played in the down-trodden Conference-USA and helped make the transition into the suddenly strong Big East. They were here when football crowds were lucky to top 15,000 people, now it's surprising to see less than 30,000 people in the seats.

"We had good teams and great players who are playing in the NFL, but now, the atmosphere and finally having a home-field advantage is nice," Digger Bujnoch said.

"Going from Conference USA to the Big East, getting ranked, all of that stuff was just a dream," Mike Daniels said. "Now it's a reality."

They have helped take this program from an afterthought, to on the verge of national prominence, to a nationally ranked team. So it's fitting then that a game being built as "the biggest game in school history" falls on their senior day.

The impact this senior class has had on Cincinnati football is not lost on first-year UC head coach Brian Kelly.

"The ups and downs of Cincinnati football, where it's stood and where it's at now," Kelly said. "For them I'm really excited about the legacy that they'll be able to leave here, being the senior class that really vaults Cincinnati football to a new level."

The ups and downs Kelly talks about are obviously the varying success of the football team over the years, but also the consistent changes in the coaching staff. Most of the seniors are on their second head coach at UC, but fifth-year players like Bujnoch and Daniels are on their third. Bujnoch is currently working with his fifth offensive line coach in as many years.

Whether its players making an on-the-field impact like Anthony Hoke and Angelo Craig, or those making an off the field impact like Daniels, all seniors have had a hand in helping develop this program, one way or another.

Emotions will be riding high with seniors playing at home for the final time and a possible Bowl Championship Series berth on the line. So how do they separate the emotions? The answer for Craig is he doesn't.

"It all ties together because I haven't beaten West Virginia since I've been here so that would be a great victory for us to go out with," Craig said.

Indeed it would be.

It's funny to talk to the seniors about their freshman year and have them reminisce about the beginning of their careers. Their faces light up and it's almost as though they have put themselves right back to that point in time and look like freshman.

That shows the pride these players have not only in their team, but in their university and the community they have lived in for four or five years.

When these seniors committed to Cincinnati they, like most recruits, they told themselves they wanted to help build the program to national prominence. The difference, however, these guys actually meant it.

"Yeah, honestly I did," tight end Doug Jones said. "I knew we had a lot of talent in [this year's] senior class and I knew we had a lot of talent on our team. We just had to do what we needed to do as a team and not have any individuals, and that's what we've done."

This group of seniors took pride in their program and bought into the Mark Dantonio motto of "taking ownership of your team."

Even though Jones believed this program could reach the level it has, he still has a hard time believing it is where it is, knocking on the door of a Big East championship.

"I don't know if it has really sunk in yet," Jones said. "It's a great feeling to be where we're at. We have a chance to win the Big East. It's an unbelievable feeling."

They have shown that pride in various ways over the years. Some by doing community service, others with hard work in the classroom and others simply by helping buck the national stereotype of Cincinnati athletes as "thugs" by simply staying out of trouble.

So as this group prepares for their final home game, what will they tell each other before Saturday's game?

"Nothing that they don't already know…It's just reiterating what's already in their head and just coming together as one," Bujnoch said.

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