Why all of Cincinnati should be celebrating the Bearcats
What UC's football team is doing isn't unprecedented in the Queen City, but it is exceptionally rare
What a weekend for Cincinnati sports, am I right? No, I’m not talking about the Bengals; yes, I told you the bandwagon was about to get full (and yes, I still believe that), but they laid an egg against the Chargers. The Reds…well, Bob Castellini and his fellow owners locked out the players, so they aren’t doing much of anything. As for college hoops, both Xavier (7-1) and Cincinnati (7-2) have managed nice wins during their non-conference slates, and the Crosstown Shootout looms large next weekend.
But this weekend — and, right now, this city — was owned by the University of Cincinnati’s football Bearcats. UC, ranked #4 in the country, won the AAC Championship game 35-20 over Houston, improving to 13-0 on the season and qualifying for the College Football Playoff.
Let me repeat that: Cincinnati has qualified for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff. What a time to be alive.
How rare is this accomplishment?
Well, it’s unprecedented in the sense that UC is the first Group of 5 team ever to break into the rarefied air of the College Football Playoff. And the way it has happened is a testament to a great coach, and a group of players who never stopped believing in that coach’s system, as Justin Williams documents brilliantly in this piece at The Athletic ($).
It’s difficult to comprehend fully what head coach Luke Fickell has managed to accomplish in five years at the helm of the Bearcat football program. He inherited a program that had just gone 4-8, including a miserable 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference under former coach Tommy Tuberville. Fickell, the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, struggled in season one, finishing with an identical 4-8 record. But he had already begun changing the culture.
In the four years since, Fickell’s Bearcats have lost a total of just six games, including a perfect 13-0 so far this season. He’ll have a shot to make it 14-0 when Cincinnati plays Alabama in the CFP semi-finals in the Cotton Bowl on December 31.
So this team’s story hasn’t been fully written yet, and Fickell and company have a terrific opportunity to make even more history — and a bigger statement on the national stage — in the coming weeks. But think about what they’ve already accomplished within the wider context of Cincinnati sports success. The rabid sports fans of this city have been waiting a long, long time for this kind of a run.
When is the last time another team from Cincinnati made it as far in their league as the 2021 football Bearcats? If we’re looking at the recent history of our professional teams playing in their sport’s highest league — Reds (MLB), Bengals (MLS), FC Cincinnati (MLS), Cincinnati Royals (NBA) — and the local Division 1 college programs, the picture is pretty ugly. But you’re a Cincinnati sports fan, so you already knew that.
UC is essentially in the “Final Four” of their sport. The Reds, of course, haven’t been to baseball’s final four — the National League Championship Series — since 1995. That was the year they were swept by the Atlanta Braves in four games. In the 26 years since, the Reds have only approached those heights one other time. That was in 2012, when Buster Posey, well…that’s all I want to say about that.
It’s a similar story with the Bengals, of course. In the last 31 seasons — yikes, a single tear is rolling down my cheek as I type these words — the Bengals have only made the playoffs seven times. They have lost in the Wild Card game each of those seven seasons. In 1990, Cincinnati actually won the Wild Card game, a 41-14 victory over Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers. Alas, they fell to the Los Angeles Raiders in the next round.
Which means that the last time the Bengals made it as far in their sport as the Bearcats have this year was 1988, when they lost a heartbreaker to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII. If you’re old enough to remember those Sam Wyche/Boomer Esiason-led Bengals, would you have ever guessed at the time that we’d be in 2021 and Cincinnati would never again have advanced even to the AFC Championship game? That’s 34 years!
The Cincinnati Royals of the NBA haven’t advanced to the conference finals since 1964, when 25 year-old Oscar Robertson and 23 year-old Jerry Lucas lost to Boston in five games. That’s 57 years! Wait…not so surprising, I guess, since the Royals haven’t played in Cincinnati since 1972.
How about college hoops? Xavier University has been playing basketball since 1919, has qualified for 15 of the last 17 NCAA tournaments, and has pretty much been a fixture in March Madness since the days of head coach Pete Gillen and the Midwest Collegiate Conference all the way back in 1985.
The Musketeers have reached the Elite Eight three times, in 2004, 2008, and 2017. Each time, they lost in that regional final, failing to advance to the Final Four. In 2018, under coach Chris Mack, and behind Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura, Xavier was the #1 seed in the West region, but lost in the second round. So…sorry, Xavier fans. They’ve never made it as far as this year’s Bearcat football program. But hey, they’re looking pretty good so far this season!
And I’m sorry to have to follow that up with a discussion of the Musketeers’ crosstown rivals, who have had quite a bit more success, at least historically. UC’s basketball program has qualified for six Final Fours, though the first four came back in the dark ages (in 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1963), when Robertson lifted the program to national glory. In ‘61 and ‘62, after The Big O had moved on to the professional ranks, the Bearcats, of course, won two national championships.
Since Bob Huggins took over the coaching duties at UC in 1989, the program has been consistently relevant on the national stage, advancing to the Elite Eight three times in five years between 1992 and 1996. The first of those appearances, 1992, led to a Final Four behind Herb Jones (18.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Nick Van Exel (12.3 ppg, 3 apg), where they fell to the Fab Five of Michigan. They haven’t been back to the Final Four since, though they were a top-three seed in six out of seven years between 1996 and 2002. And who can forget that brilliant 1999-2000 team, which had all the pieces to make a deep run but it all vanished when Kenyon Martin broke his leg before the tournament.
As for FC Cincinnati, they’ve only been in MLS for three seasons and, yeah, nothing to see here. Move along.
Look, I’m not telling you something you don’t already know, that no Cincinnati team has advanced to its sport’s semifinals since 1995. And yes, this is kind of a false equivalency; you can’t really compare college football to other sports, especially since the College Football Playoff has only been around since 2014. Who’s to say, for example, that the 2009 Bearcats wouldn’t have advanced to the CFP under the current system? That team, you will recall was 12-0 and ranked #4 under head coach B**** K**** when they qualified for the Sugar Bowl.
And yes, there are other “local” college basketball and football programs — Ohio State and Kentucky, in particular — who have enjoyed more success on the national level. But in Cincinnati, what we’ve witnessed this season is pretty special. For more than a generation, we’ve become accustomed to having our hearts broken every single year, by every single team.
That’s why everyone in and around the Queen City should be celebrating the incredible success of Coach Fickell and the University of Cincinnati. Yes, even you Xavier fans. Your time is coming.
The Riverfront: A Cincinnati Reds Show
As you may know, we relaunched our podcast last week with the 400th episode of the show. You can still find the audio podcast the same way you always have, in your podcast app and at Redleg Nation, though the name of the show has now permanently changed to “The Riverfront.” (Here we are on Spotify, for example.)
As I mentioned last week, however, we are now on YouTube as well. Be sure to subscribe to our channel. And below, our first video show. Please be kind! (In the coming weeks, we’ll be doing live-streams with friends and fans. Stay tuned.)
This week, Chris Garber and Nate Dotson joined me to discuss the MLB lockout and how it affects the Cincinnati Reds.
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Well put. This city is as passionate about sports as any in the country and we're dying to have someone, ANYONE, have a celebratory parade ending at Fountain Square. I know UC football still doesn't have the fanbase as the Reds, Bengals, or any of the of the regional college powerhouses but this is a team built with a foundation of kids from here in the area (Fickell's 'State of Cincinnati' recruiting footprint) and they're the tough, blue-collar, overlooked and over achieving sort this town has always embraced. Come join the bandwagon!!