University of Cincinnati Gets Competitive

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University of Cincinnati Gets Competitive
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

This story is about a simple philosophy which explains the Cincinnati Bearcats' trip to the 2010 Allstate Sugar Bowl. UC's deserter coach Brian Kelly said it, and Director of Athletics Mike Thomas reiterated it, and I've enjoyed living by it: "Cincinnati will play anyone, anywhere, at anytime."

So let's look at this statement: "Cincinnati will play anyone, anywhere, anytime." This kind of thinking greatly benefits a growing program looking for respect in the tradition-bound world of college football. Sounds confrontational and competitive. 

The phrase also differs from a previous UC athletic mantra: "Intimidate. Dominate. Celebrate." Those words sounded like a promise. And, to some extent, they were. Those were the days when UC occasionally cashed in on this attitude on the basketball court.

Using some of the NCAA's most notorious thuggish players, the Bearcats enjoyed a long run of top 25 teams throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Making one Final Four trip, and three Elite Eight appearances, the Bearcats were considered a difficult game on many schools' schedules.

But, UC harbored problem-prone players like Dontonio Wingfield, Danny Fortson, Kenyon Martin, and the infamous Art Long, who was arrested for assaulting a police horse with his fist.

While Bearcats basketball enjoyed mild success, traditionally conservative Cincinnatians in the stands always felt a little uneasy trying to justify the means. What good were victories on the court if you were afraid of encountering the team on the streets?

For decades, Football had taken a backseat to basketball right up until the departure of DUI-embattled coach Bob Huggins. Fortunately, a great and unexpected thing happened when Nancy Zimpher took over as University President. Huggins was fired, Brian Kelly was hired, UC basketball faded somewhat, but UC football has finished two consecutive regular seasons in the AP top 25, and has two Big East Conference Championships.

No longer predicting results, UC has stuck to the idea of gamesmanship and accepting what challenges may come. According to the University's Athletic Boosters' page: 

"Cincinnati's proud football history includes a number of firsts, possibly including the first postseason bowl game.

The NCAA Official Football Records recognizes the Rose Bowl, which was started in 1902, as being the first collegiate bowl game. A manuscript written by former UC athletic director Bill Schwarberg points to a bowl appearance by Cincinnati that pre-dates the Rose Bowl by five years.

Schwarberg, who played for the Bearcats from 1933-36 and served as interim Director of Athletics in 1976, cited a record in the University's McMicken Review. It indicated that following the 1897 season, Cincinnati became the first institution from Ohio to make a trip south to play in a postseason game.

Cincinnati posted a 7-1-1 record that year, which included a 34-0 win over Ohio State. The lone team to beat UC was the powerful Carlisle Indians.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, management of the Cincinnati team received an invitation from the Southern Athletic Club to play a game in New Orleans on New Year's Day. A travel party of 14, which included the substitutes and the coach and manager, departed for New Orleans on Dec. 30 where they were hosted by the Southern Athletic Club. Accounts of the game have UC winning with ease by a score of 16-0.

At a victory party that evening, players from Louisiana State challenged the Bearcats to a game the next day in Baton Rouge. UC accepted the challenge and overwhelmed the LSU team, 28-0. Accounts of the trip describe lavish entertainment provided during the trip.

If this was indeed UC's first bowl game, it was 49 years before the Bearcats again experienced postseason play."

If this is true, and we have no reason to assume it isn't, chances are your grandparents hadn't been born when UC played in its first post-season football game. The sport of basketball was only six years old, and the practice of dribbling may not have even been developed yet.

There may have been about six automobiles in America at the time, and we can't be sure from the information given whether UC took a train or a steamboat down to New Orleans that winter. UC, which hadn't even become the Bearcats yet, can point to moments in history of playing "anyone, anywhere, anytime."

But, why the gap in history? The Bearcats would wait 49 years before playing in another post-season game, and only compete in four throughout the entire 20th century. In the past decade, UC has enjoyed seven bowl berths, emerging victorious in three. There has been a resurgence of gamesmanship, but no satisfactory account for such long gaps of post-season activity. 

Perhaps the "anyone" competitors in and around the state of Ohio may account for football's historically low importance to the University and city of Cincinnati.

Ohio’s capital is about two hours northeast of Cincinnati. There in Columbus, Ohio State University claims the Buckeye as its mascot. While all Ohioans technically could be considered Buckeyes (it is “the Buckeye State“), OSU’s claim on the moniker has been legitimized by a tradition of winning. A tradition which many Ohioans, whether they’ve been to Columbus or not, absolutely love.

Those Buckeyes have quite a history with 13 national titles, seven Heisman trophies for fielding the sport’s best player in a season, and a place in the top five successful college football programs of all-time. However, OSU’s stranglehold on success and recruiting has subjugated all other schools within state lines to the status of little brother. 

The Buckeyes and the Bearcats are Ohio’s only BCS teams, and the only teams who really have a chance at playing in one of the five big postseason games. This year, Ohio State makes their 14th trip to the Rose Bowl, looking for their seventh win. A major Bowl is almost always in the cards for the Buckeyes.

This perennial power basically lets OSU pick and choose who they play and when. The school is able to maintain its prominence simply by refusing to play games against up-and-coming teams. In some cases, when such a match is inevitable, OSU uses its weight to manipulates the schedule in their program's favor.

For example, when UC and OSU agreed to a multi-game series between each other back in 2003, OSU later decided in 2008 to opt-out of the 2012 game to be held in Cincinnati and only play the final game of the series in Columbus in 2014.

After much negotiation, Cincinnati was able to arrange a face-saving deal where OSU would pay UC one million dollars, but the Buckeyes would host the 2012 game in Columbus. The Bearcats have a well-respected opponent on their schedule for both 2012 and 2014, but no home-field advantage or reciprocal respect.

UC may earn some more of that respect if it wins on January 1st. One boost already came earlier this season when for the first time since 1951, the Bearcats were ranked ahead of the Buckeyes in the Associated Press poll. No other team from Ohio has accomplished this feat during that time span.

And one has to go back to the days of the Harding administration to find an occasion when OSU has been defeated by another team from the state (psst…it was the mighty football powerhouse of Oberlin College [yeah, the art school]). So, lasting respect, equality, fair scheduling is all on the table at this point.

A win against Florida would solidify UC's superior ranking to the Buckeyes this season and continue the Bearcats' quest to move out of the shadow of Ohio State. Cincinnati might even see the Buckeyes come to town for a football game sometime after 2014.

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