CINCINNATI -- The stars did not need till midnight to shine in Cincinnati on Friday.
It was a banner day for two former Bearcats student-athletes, celebrities in college and in their respective professional careers, as football's Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and men's basketball's Nick Van Exel returned to Clifton to receive their diplomas. "It's high: the top of the mountain for sure," Gardner, the NFL's reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, said in the morning. "My mom always told me to put school first, so it's a big thing for her and me as well. I was telling people (today) it felt like gameday. I'm a little anxious and looking forward to it." The two-time All-American could not have asked for better timing, having been with his New York Jets in Canton the previous night to open the NFL preseason. He elected to enter the NFL Draft in 2022 after three years at UC (2019-21), and he became the program's highest-ever pick at No. 4 overall. Gardner was also quick to credit two of Cincinnati's Student-Athlete Support Services staff in helping him reach the finish line remotely. He also said teammates and alumni who graduated served as inspiration, including Travis Kelce amidst his Super Bowl titles and Pro Bowl appearances. "Ms. Keri (Thoman) and Dr. (Joe) Luckey always talked about academics," he said. "They love football, but they want us to be successful with football aside. Academics was always a priority. I took it day by day initially, but I knew I wanted to come back and get it. It was just a matter of when."
Van Exel had the more circuitous path. He averaged 15.2 points and 3.6 assists per game in two years at Cincinnati, first helping the Bearcats to the 1992 Final Four followed by the 1993 Elite Eight.
He followed his standout 13-year NBA career with a lengthy coaching tenure, primarily in the NBA ranks. He did say that came with its share of stories as he continued to pursue his degree. "I would be on the plane and my coaches would ask what I was doing and laugh because they didn't think I was serious," he said. "A lot of it was at home because we had down time. We practiced from 11-2, so we had time to get it done. It was a lot of cramming too, and it was tough, but the grind was real." Van Exel admitted he started and quit multiple times, but that his wife and former teammates were the ones who pushed him the most. Then, there was his daughter. "I have to set a good example for her," he said. "She always teased me that I would walk across the stage with grey hair. I said 'it's never too late to be great.'" Sauce as a condiment is known to last for ages, but Gardner made his own age joke prior to the ceremony after his team toured Canton's Pro Football Hall of Fame this week. "(Attending graduation) was meant to be," he said. "I was already in Ohio, so perfect timing. I take it one day at a time. The one thing that scares me, is if I'm gonna be in the Hall of Fame, I'm gonna be a lot older. My mom always told me to stay a kid as long as I could, and look at me now."
Photo from GoBearcats social media Van Exel could share similar sentiments as he recounted growing up in Wisconsin before his collegiate hoops route took him to junior college in Texas, followed by Cincinnati. "It's definitely a sense of accomplishment," he said. "I told people all the time I had no direction as a kid. My thing was just get to the NCAA and play baskertball, and it wasn't academics. To have this under my belt is real special. "I tell kids all the time to get that degree, because you never know when it will come back to bite you. We were here enjoying Cincinnati and playing good basketball, and that was on the back burner. As we got older we realized we could set a good example. I tell kids to get it while you can and as soon as possible." Commencement speeches are a time-honored tradition, and the next generation's leaders soon set out for their celebratory meals, followed by the first morning of the rest of their lives. Van Exel, whose perseverance was duly rewarded, left with words that could have made the Fifth Third Arena mics themselves. "(My advice) would be to have a passion, dreams and try to reach those dreams," he said. "If you don't have dreams, you don't have direction. Put some stuff on the board and try to accomplish those goals you set out to get, and anything can happen."
Per Sauce Gardner, August 4th is officialy "Ahmad Sauce Gardner Day" in Cincinnati: