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Dan Weber's Just Sayin': A Chat with Highlands Grad, UC Coach Gino Guidugli

Dan Weber writes a sports column for The River City News. Contact him at dweber3440@aol.com.

It would seem like a straight shot down Memorial Parkway from Ft. Thomas then across the river and up Vine Street to the University of Cincinnati campus. Especially for a guy like Gino Guidugli who, after leading his Highlands High School Bluebirds to three straight state titles, picked up where he left off as a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Bearcats.

And now this week, Gino is the lone Northern Kentuckian, coach or player, who will be representing UC Saturday in South Bend in the nation's top college football game when the seventh-ranked Bearcats face the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish in a battle of unbeatens.

But you would be wrong in thinking it was a straight shot from to Clifton for Gino. When you ask him about what this big game means, the UC passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach talks about "how all the hard work of this team is paying off" . . . how "they deserve to be in a game like this. The magnitude of this game is a tribute to them."

And while Gino wasn't talking about himself, just his players and fellow coaches, he surely could have been when you look at the long and winding 13-year journey he took to get here through the NFL (Tennessee Titans in 2005) and all sorts of Canadian and Arena League Football venues from British Columbia to Green Bay to New York to Milwaukee, where he threw for 4,872 yards and 86 touchdowns his final season at Milwaukee after already having moved on to his first college coaching job as a grad assistant at Central Michigan in 2009.

When you mention those stops to Gino, he laughs, that's how you do it in college coaching. You put in the time. You go where the job is. Six seasons in all in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. And then the James P. Kelly Athletics Hall of Famer and Nippert Stadium Ring of Honor member got the call to come home.

"It's an honor to be coaching where you played. I'm just so grateful to be back around my family and friends," Gino says. He started as UC's running backs coach in 2017, quarterbacks coach the next year and in 2020, added passing game coordinator to his duties.

Which is where he's come to mentor Louisville St. Xavier product Desmond Ridder, a fifth-year senior who has gone from a high school prospect whose only other offer was from Eastern Kentucky to a place on the Heisman Trophy watch list and a projected high NFL draft pick.

"He's really grown since he got here," Gino says of Ridder. "He just finds a way to win."

Which is what the unbeaten Bearcats have done, moving to unprecedented heights in the polls. "This is an attractive place to play, a great city," Gino says. "There's a lot to be said about playing here. Nippert Stadium is unique, right in the middle of campus."

And after its recent upgrading, Nippert is a modern 41,000-seat facility, the third-oldest NCAA stadium (built in 1915) and second-oldest playing field (1901) in the nation.

A two-time MVP at UC who led the Bearcats to three straight bowl games, Guidugli still holds career records for passing yards, attempts, completions, and TD passes with single-season records for passing yards, attempts, and completions. He's also the lone Bearcat to have thrown for more than 3,500 yards in a season while racking up 14 career 300-yard passing games. 

But for as much as people make this a big game, biggest in memory for the Bearcats where Stubhub lists seats available for the sold-out game from as low as $140 to as high as $1150, that's not their approach, Gino says. "We're big into routine, same thing week in, week out." So USC will fly up Friday evening, head to the hotel and be ready to play the next day. Same as always.

And when you note that UC will be going into this game without a Northern Kentuckian on the roster, Gino notes immediately that "they have Michael Mayer," the sophomore tight end from Covington Catholic who is an All-American candidate and Notre Dame's best player.

So stay tuned Saturday (2:30 p.m., NBC). Northern Kentuckians will have two teams to root for . . . JUST SAYIN'.

More than basketball for Kentucky's team

Although the folks in Louisville might not all agree, Kentucky's team resides in Lexington and wears Big Blue. And with preseason practice getting underway Wednesday, here's a thought about how we'd like to see the Kentucky Wildcats combine the state's love for them and their opportunity to do something in return. Especially in eastern Kentucky where they may love their Wildcats more than anybody.

This would be an idea to build on what Wildcat Keion Brooks, Jr. tweeted out when the first of the new "Name, Image and Likeness" deals started coming through for UK players to benefit commercially from their sport: "Going forward, we are asking that any business opportunity presented to our team include a plan for a 10% donation to charity. We want to leave an impact with BBN that extends off the court."

Following up on that sentiment, here's what we'd like to see UK figure out a way to do. Everybody knows about what a big deal Midnight Madness is. But what if the Wildcats took a mini-Midnight Madness or two to places in Kentucky that could really benefit. And then perform a switch on the normal conversation about how the Covid-19 pandemic might impact sports the past 18 months. What if the conversation was about how could sports impact the fans?

Which is why if you check out the latest health stats, Kentucky has the third-highest death rate -- or lowest life expectancy rate -- (ahead of only Mississippi and Alabama) in the nation. And while the stats for Covid bounce up and down every ew weeks, one stat that doesn't is the death rate for drug overdoses mainly fueled by the opiod crisis. Five Kentucky counties -- Owsley (No. 6 in the nation), Breathitt (No. 7), Leslie (No. 9), Perry (No. 14), and Harlan (No. 20) are in the bottom 20 in the U.S. when it comes to life expectancy. Four of them are nearly a decade below the U.S. average of 78 years at just 69 years.

So just a thought here. What if UK picked out a county or two from this group, set up a scrimmage on a day when there would be offerings of Covid testing and vaccines as well as all the anti-drug, health and wellness programs the state and the UK School of Medicine could offer? In one place. On one day. And do so in some of the large high school gyms in the mountains. Breathitt County has a 4,000-seat gym. Harlan County's seats 3,760. Perry County Central in Hazard seats 4,895.

What a chance for UK basketball to take advantage of its place in the hierarchy of things that matter in the Bluegrass State . . . JUST SAYIN'.

Nick Sure Can Kick It

The first kickoff in the Conner-Boone County game should have been the tip-off. "No. 99 kicks it into the end zone," you wrote in your notebook. Then the next time, "No. 99 into the end zone." Then again, No. 99 "deep into the end zone." And a fourth time in the first half -- No. 99 into the end zone on the KO." Oh, and there was that first punt -- from the Conner 26 to the Boone 10: "A 64-yard punt on a bounce," we noted of the work of one Nicholas Keller. There seems to be a pattern. "Is he as big-time a kicker prospect as he showed tonight?" we asked Conner Coach James Trosper after two more kickoffs deep into and one through the end zone in the second half. "What do you think?" he asked back with a smile. For a senior with a 4.6 GPA and a 32 on the ACT, he would seem to be. Trosper says Louisville looks like it might be the place for Nick to kick. So if you get the chance and want to see someone put the foot into football, catch Conner this season and look for No. 99 . . . JUST SAYIN'.   

-- Dan Weber

Photo: Gino Guidugli (provided by University of Cincinnati athletics)