Later on, I loved UC and hated Xavier.
And this year? Ha — I’ll make you wait a few paragraphs for that.
I know you wanna know, and ain’t it great? Ain’t this rivalry one huge hoot?
We may not have the NBA, but darned if we aren’t one of the best college basketball towns in the land. Maybe the best. And though that’s not news to most of you, it’s worthy of a new drum-banging each November.
When UC and Xavier are both good, it’s almost as prestigious for the city as having a mid-level NBA team. And in the Week 4 Associated Press poll, released Nov. 27, UC’s unbeaten Bearcats are 11th and XU’s once-beaten Musketeers are 21st.
No other city has two schools in the poll. Very few other cities even have two Division I teams, and most of those few get lost in mega-markets. Think USC-UCLA hoops in Los Angeles; out there it works better than Ambien. Philadelphia has its Big 5, with Villanova, Temple and three other schools, but there is no definable rivalry that parts the city. Simply, there is no situation like ours.
And this year’s UC-XU game is fast upon us, Dec. 2 at Xavier. It’s a Saturday nooner this time, and the earliest date for the game since 1996. The intensity from Xavier’s first-class Cintas Center will be broadcast on FS1, continuing a long run of national TV spots for the series.
Don’t you hope FS1 will do like ESPN has done, with a speeded-up video from a car driving the 3.5 miles from one campus to the other? I love that video, I know every foot of that route and it’s a real nice area to live in or near. It’s cool to have that on TV and to think of other people from Maine to Cali who are thinking it’s pretty cool, too.
So hail to the Bearcats and hail to the Musketeers. But around 12:03 p.m. on Dec. 2, the game will start. And in most craniums locally, the urge to kumbaya both programs will disappear for a day. Or more.
“This game brings out a lot of the worst in people instead of the best,” a succinct UC coach Mick Cronin told local scribe Bill Koch for Koch’s excellent recent book, Inside the Crosstown Shootout.
Yeah, there was that nasty brawl at Cintas in December 2011. It makes Cronin feel the game should be played downtown, rather than on the campuses. But still, can’t we have some fun with this?
Sure we can. So on Dec. 2, who will you love and who will you hate?
You can’t be married to two teams any more than two spouses, and the intense locality of this rivalry means it’s hard not to think hard thoughts about the other guys on the day you face them. You want them, not you, to deal all winter with that dark little cloud that comes with a loss.
I moved to Cincinnati in late 1983, for a sportswriting gig (not college hoops) at The Cincinnati Post, and I was first exposed to the Shootout as a fan on Jan. 26, 1984 at the Cincinnati Gardens. UC was way down, in its first year under coach Tony Yates (3-25 record), but I knew the program had a strong history. Xavier (or was it “Eggs-avier”?) was a nobody to me. The program’s one-and-done appearance in the NCAA tourney the previous spring had ended a 21-year absence from postseason play, and I don’t recall knowing Xavier even existed before I moved here.
So initially I was disposed to prefer the Bearcats. They had my new city’s name on their jerseys, and the Musketeers didn’t seem worth caring about.
But quickly that changed. A neighbor in Oakley became a close friend, and he was a huge Xavier guy, reared in Norwood, close to the campus. He influenced me, and the schools cooperated. Xavier was finally a program on the rise, under the colorful and likeable Bob Staak, and UC stayed in the pits under Yates, who in addition to not winning was terrible with the media. (Cardinal sin in my book, though I wasn’t covering him personally.)
And all through the rest of the ’80s and into the mid-’90s, I was totally a Muskie guy. The likeable and successful Pete Gillen grabbed the XU reins in 1985-86, and UC gained no points with me in 1989-90, when it replaced the hapless Yates with Bob Huggins.
No sir and no ma’am, I did not like Huggs’ act. Hell of a coach, easy to see why red-meat UC fans loved him, and he has mellowed with age and success. (He’s now at West Virginia, with a second Final Four under his belt.) But he came off to me then as arrogant, a bully, and he just fed my XU partisanship. UC fans seemed arrogant, too, quick to belittle the quality of play in XU’s Midwestern City Conference.
One of my top Cincinnati sports kicks came Dec. 18, 1999. Huggins’ powerful Bearcats, led by Kenyon Martin, were ranked No. 1 in the nation but having huge trouble shaking Skip Prosser’s NIT-quality XU team at the Gardens. I was watching at home — I had only recently moved from the suburbs to Clifton — and early in the second half it dawned on me: I can drive to the Gardens in less than 15 minutes. The parking lots and turnstiles won’t be staffed now. I can park real close and walk right in for the end of this.
Done. What an experience. Xavier won a tremendous nail-biter, 66-64. It was the second time in four years the Muskies had knocked off a top-ranked Huggins UC team. And after the first one, in December 1996, XU broadcaster Andy MacWilliams had famously screamed that UC was “No. 1 in the nation and No. 2 in Cincinnati!!!”
But in 2005-06, my Crosstown tide started turning. Huggins was blessedly gone, dismissed in a sea of controversy, and I had been living near the UC campus for seven years. I loved Clifton, UC felt like my “neighborhood university” and I had always supported UC football.
Plus, I had always been a public-school kind of guy. And as the Catholic Church continued careening to the right on social issues, this ex-Catholic was no longer inclined to offer great support to any Catholic institution. I ditched my Blue-and-White for Red-and-Black.
And here’s that answer I told you I’d make you wait for: I feel pretty much the same way today. I’ll be pulling for UC on Dec. 2, and my thoughts about the Muskies… well, some may not come from the best of me, as Coach Cronin might note.
But before that kicks in, I want to give XU its due. The basketball program is a civic jewel, run with class and so much success. My goodness, in the last 10 seasons, the Muskies have reached the Sweet 16 six times, with two of those teams moving on to the Elite Eight (including last year). UC is one of only eight schools to reach the last seven NCAA tourneys — XU missed out once in that span — but only one of UC’s seven straight has carried to the Sweet 16.
UC leads the all-time series by a comfortable 50-34, and UC has been to five Final Fours, with two long-ago national championships (1960-61 and 1961-62). Xavier has no Final Fours.
But XU has won seven of the last 10 meetings and 14 of the last 21. And UC is a lame 1-6 at Cintas.
Bottom line? Xavier is No. 1 in the Queen City right now. And I wish the Muskies well in 2017-18.
Except on Dec. 2.
Contact Jack Brennan: [email protected] citybeat.com