Football finally arrives in Bearcat Country

The public relations folks at the University of Cincinnati would likely pick a bone over my headline – winning football, they’d say, arrived more than a decade ago – but UC’s
nationally-televised, thrilling win against Rutgers Saturday night in their Big East opener makes the assertion official in the minds of fans, broadcasters, analysts and most likely AP voters. A fat national ranking will confirm the Bearcat’s new status as a football school.

Unknowing UC alumni scanning the morning papers might choke on their coffee when they see a 15 national ranking and 6-0 record in the Bearcats’ box score. This alumni remembers the decade or more of derision the program earned as one of the worst in the country, year after year chosen by Playboy or Sports Illustrated (usually both) for scathing top-20 worst lists recounting humiliating losses by scores so lopsided, copy editors everywhere triple-checked before approving the story. Could it really be that bad? Yes.

The team triumphing on the field these days resembles nothing from those teams of the 1970s and 80s, a result of steady building throughout the 90s and this decade. It’s been a long time coming. Cincinnati is – or was – Ohio State recruiting territory for the steady stream of top-tier products from local powerhouse high schools. Recruits left over after OSU and Big Ten schools picked through the best often chose MAC schools, which offered better campus experiences and the same – or higher – caliber of football. Everyone down to granny listening to the radio on the front porch (Bearcat football was rarely televised) knew the area to be prime territory for a local school to build a national program. For decades lamented the unfulfilled potential, shook their heads every time UC stumbled after a strong start or a blip on the national radar. Another trip to the Humanitarian Bowl, back when it was still funny to joke about Boise.

A city school known for basketball in a metropolitan city known for professional football struggled for more than a decade to convincingly present itself as a reborn football program – a contender. Coach Brian Kelly got a taste of the side-of-the-mouth reputation UC has among cynical local media when exactly zero members of the local media showed up at the Big East football media day. He described the experience as humiliating. If only he’d been around twenty years prior. Nippert Stadium didn’t even have a press box to speak of. He has no idea how many times the UC marketing heads spun out new advertising campaigns for new seasons promising new accomplishments and higher rises only to fall short on the field. Every other sneer or smirk from the local talking heads and ranting radio jocks hit the target. UC appeared to be trying to do everything to win – and everything to lose.

When I first arrived in Clifton, Nippert stadium was condemned. Literally. Fall freshman year we jumped the barricades and explored the underbelly like a Nightmare on Elm Street scene: creepy piles of rubble, broken steam pipes and fetid, dripping water. That winter a new craze swept Clifton as a cocky JUCO transfer point guard named Nikki Van Exel and hard-driving, foul-mouthed new coach Bob Huggins stunned the college basketball world with a run to the Final Four, followed the year after with a return to the Elite Eight. Football during the 90s ate at the heels of basketball, fan attendance sometimes better for the round ball.

Nevertheless, along with a twenty year reconstruction plan for the virtually crumbling and obsolete campus, a renovated Nippert Stadium emerged with a new 20,000 seat upper deck. The snorts of derisive laughter among the cynical set could be heard all of the way to Louisville, where another river city turned out packed stadiums and bleeding fans. Home games at Nippert Stadium bordered on the surreal as the 15,000 or 20,000 bodies inhabiting the bleachers amused themselves with everything but the game. The roar of the cannon after a touchdown caused much spillage of beer from unsuspecting fans – fans in a loose sense of the word. The upper deck, needed only once or twice a year for home games when “real” football programs visited and brought their fans, attracted more pigeons than people.

Coach Kelly had no idea what a viper pit he ventured into when he took the UC job early last winter, but he hasn’t lost so it doesn’t matter. Decades of smug he faced. Cincinnati smug, a very peculiar and common trait of the locals that shocks people from other sports cities who have never seen such a pack of fair weather fans. Apathy is like inertia – once settled in it is exponentially harder to budge. Cincinnati apathy is an ugly scene to witness. The Reds fall victim just about every year, and if the Bengals keep losing, they’ll soon find themselves towing an empty bandwagon. One minute you’re petting the friendly doggy and the next it attacks your throat.

The university did not help itself by tearing down many of the local bars and neighborhood restaurants which attracted the staple of UC’s fan base: locals and alumni with nothing better to do but pound beer on a Saturday afternoon. Serious concerns about safety (especially after riots and police shootings made international headlines) and inept planning to provide adequate parking and direct routes to the stadium discouraged attendance. Local mega-station WLW perpetuated a snide opinion of the UC football, applauding when appropriate, like for a winning season and trip to a minor Bowl game, but served with an expectation that soon enough the team and/or the school would shoot itself in the foot. Sure enough that happened when war erupted between new UC President Nancy Zimpher and coach Huggins, leading to Huggins’ departure.

The cynicism machine found plenty of fresh material, even though it was the basketball program that took the bombshell and not the football team. The reason for the mass eruption requires a quick lesson in UC sports history, but the basic assertion is this: everyone knew the Huggins train had pulled the rest of the athletics department along on its rise from laughing stock to national contender. The common assumption in sports circles stretching from the bar stools of Willy’s Sports Bar in Covington to Montgomery Inn in the northern suburbs of the city was that without Huggins, UC had one leg to stand on. For a while it appeared the critics were proved correct – until coach Kelly’s team proved them wrong.

Bob Huggins walked onto the UC campus at the turn of the 80s decade into the 90s and faced a daunting prospect Kelly could not imagine. Taking over a losing program is never easy, but given time Huggins could have your local recreation league team playing the Globetrotters. The far larger obstacle was the school itself.

He must have thought a bomb had gone off. Literally, the dorm building next to Shoemaker Center (the basketball arena) blew up, imploded after a short life because someone thought the idea great to let students design it. Across the campus, the world’s largest poured concrete building sank ever so slowly into the water table below. Similarly, the new library hadn’t accounted for the weight of all those books. The new science building lacked bathrooms and was hobbled by elevators you’d think were being hand-cranked by monkeys in the basement. Nippert was condemned, but Huggins didn’t have to play basketball there. His brand spanking new arena had a decent season ticket base. He had something to work with, and a bigger conference to eventually dominate. Home games were fun, if a little sedate. Goes back to the peculiar sports atmosphere of Cincinnati. Give them a winner and they’ll make noise like nowhere else. Anything less though and the game becomes a side show, the disrespect blatantly obvious. To paraphrase a local sports columnist, Paul Daughtery, sometimes the jangle of jewelry in the stands could be heard over the sounds of the game, but that particular column addressed a side effect of winning. Which didn’t take long once Huggy Bear Huggins came to town.

By the mid-90s UC landed a name-coach, Rick Minter, for its football program, and the success of the basketball program enabled UC President Joe Steger to launch an ambitious reshaping of the campus and the surrounding area into a sports-friendly, revenue-producing machine. Pepsi bought campus distribution rights for a hefty sum, student fees rose to pay for construction from which we were all to benefit – supposedly. We saw results, if slowly and painfully for those who endured the decade that UC was known as Under Construction. Few could argue that the exposure gained from sports success did not increase the value of their degrees. Faculty, however, howled bloody murder. “Give us a three percent raise while the athletics department sits fat and happy?” All of the noise changed little though, soon buried under a pile of conference championships and NCAA Tournament runs.

Even the football team got into the act by posting barely-winning seasons and squeaking into minor bowl games. One couldn’t tell by home attendance, or the embarrassingly small fan contingent accompanying the team on the road, but the perception was created that success to rival the other big Ohio football program was only a matter of time. Cincinnati fans waited, and waited, and waited. Minter rose and fell, a solid coach but predictable as a 25-yard field goal. Local star recruits bypassed his program, and Saturdays at Nippert Stadium dragged on futilely attempting to create a real college football atmosphere, the sort of place where everyone wants to be on brisk fall afternoons.

Home games are a hot ticket these days, the upper deck of Nippert finally being used for something more than a bird nest. Huggins is gone and the basketball program is a dog in the Big East basement. Without Steger around to protect Huggins and weigh the scales in favor of success over image, his shenanigans bought him a ticket to ride. Ironically, the reason why UC is in the Big East and BCS-eligible is now coaching a competitor at West Virginia. The BCS connection and an awesome new sports facility are attracting star recruits to UC who have no idea of the past except what they might vaguely remember as a child. Winning football has finally come to Bearcat country.