A Mostly Bad Year in Cincinnati Thankfully Ends

The year in sports just now winding behind us is most happily to be remembered for the rise of football at the University of Cincinnati, not long ago and for a very long time the most neglected t

Dec 26, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

The year in sports just now winding behind us is most happily to be remembered for the rise of football at the University of Cincinnati, not long ago and for a very long time the most neglected team in town.

Most happily remembered? Let's try that again.

The utterly regrettable year in sports that's soon to end can't end soon enough, for the big-time scene produced no blessings excepting UC's unlikely rise as a regional football contender.

That's better. And worse. But more true, either way.

Were it not for Brian Kelly, Ben Mauk and all the other UC gridsters who turned Nippert Stadium into an athletic destination this season, Cincinnati would have evaporated, at least temporarily, as any kind of hotbed for collegiate or professional television sports.

Fortunately, the team with the least tradition delivered something to cheer. The Bearcats went to the Papa John's Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 22 needing a win to reach a 10-3 record and certain recognition as a Top 20 team on a national scale.

From the moment Kelly showed up last December, he brought to the program's image and marketing efforts a long-overdue presence. Going back through more than two decades of Mark Dantonio, Rick Minter, Tim Murphy and Dave Curry, the memories of these men and their teams recede almost as they are summoned, so little did they make an impression on sports pages and their readers. Kelly changed that, first with audacity, then with audacious football.

Kelly didn't do it all by himself, of course, and this season doesn't happen without Minter stabilizing the program for 10 years to make it a feasible proposition for the Big East, then Dantonio opening doors to higher level recruits. But Kelly is succeeding as the next development with his crowd-pleasing offense and his ability to resonate in the media. And he obviously knows how to win.

The best news of the year, perhaps, isn't so much that Kelly brought the Bearcats in with a good season but that he's signed for several more. UC signed him this week through 2012, raising his salary more than 50 percent to at least $1.2 million per year. In addition, the university guaranteed facilities improvements, including new indoor and outdoor practice facilities.

So even if Kelly leaves in two or three years because a big-time job calls, he'll leave the program much better than he found it. You really can't ask for more from the people who pass through your life, short of sticking around for two decades and winning a couple national championships.

The danger always exists, though, that if a coach sticks around for long enough the program will be too closely identified with him, loyalties directed toward the program are instead directed to the coach and the coach thereby leaves behind nothing. Thus is described the sad circumstance down the walk at Fifth Third Arena, where players, boosters and fans parted with the administration over Bob Huggins, relegating a proud basketball program to square one on his departure.

Mick Cronin finished his first year of the rebuilding in March, topping off an 11-19 season with a 2-14 performance at the bottom of the Big East and failing to qualify for the conference tournament. The Bearcats still appear to be a year away from putting their name on the league bracket, though a 79-69 loss at second-ranked Memphis Dec. 19 lit up some hope that the corner isn't too far away.

Across town, Xavier has been much more successful building on the works of past coaches. Sean Miller carries on with the program left by Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser, tacking up a 25-9 record last season, winning the Atlantic-10 at 13-3, then losing in the NCAA Tournament to an Ohio State team it could have beaten. The Musketeers held a nine-point lead in the final minutes before losing.

Ohio State went on to finish second to Florida in the NCAA Tournament, matching the work of its football team, which finished second in the college football sweepstakes with a 41-14 loss to Florida in the national championship game.

Unfortunately, Prosser's name isn't mentioned accidentally. The beloved coach died on July 26 of an apparent heart attack after taking a jog at Wake Forest. He leaves behind a world for which, in many ways, he was much too good.

On Nov. 15, Joe Nuxhall died, leaving behind a world for which he was perfect, touching the lives of Cincinnatians and Reds fans who he served with such distinction as a broadcaster and personality for more than 30 years. Nuxhall was 79. His memory will live with every pitch described on the radio for summers to come.

Nuxhall didn't last long enough to see the Reds complete the turnaround promised some years ago by the opening of Great American Ball Park, and it remains to be seen if that moment will elude the rest of us. The Reds completed their seventh consecutive losing season, which began with a shaky bullpen, perished because of a shaky bullpen and ended with another second-division finish in the National League Central.

The Reds took a huge step during this offseason with the signing of free-agent reliever Francisco Cordero for four years at $46 million. If the Reds overpaid, and they might have, they took a bold step toward redressing their most serious problem.

The Reds made themselves much better for 2008. But we've had the same expectations in previous seasons.

We also expected more from the Bengals this season, who flopped for the first time since Marvin Lewis saved us from the bungling 1990s. Trying to play in the NFL without solidity in their offensive and defensive fronts, the Bengals won't break even this year against a favorable schedule.

As the year now going away mostly disappointed us in its own terms, it leaves us even worse regarding Cincinnati's cross-state rivalry with Cleveland, which has enjoyed, by some measures, unprecedented athletic prosperity. For some Cincinnati fans, that hurts worst of all.

While the Reds lost for the seventh straight year, the Cleveland Indians almost made it to the World Series. In the years since 2000, the Reds last winning season, the Indians have won, rebuilt and won again.

While the Bengals collapsed this year, the Browns went to the back end of December with a chance to enter the NFL playoffs. Most people expected nothing from the Browns this year, while many of us expected much from the Bengals. Wrong again.

And while Cincinnati talks quietly and without much real hope of landing an NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers rode LeBron James to his first NBA Finals, which ended quickly in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. The Cavs are in the mix now, despite their slow start this year.

Cincinnati is in the sports mix, too. There's always a chance, as long as there's another year coming.

Bad years come and go. Thankfully, 2007 is almost gone.