Mick and Marvin

Mick Cronin and Marvin Lewis are Cincinnati's face of unfulfilled promise

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The first panel in the comic shows the blond-headed character Fred Jones, from the old Scooby Doo cartoon. As Fred and his teenage friends often did on that Saturday morning favorite, he has saved the world from a bad guy. He has the villain tied up, and it’s Mick Cronin. Mick’s oh-so-bald head, face filled with characteristic outrage, is photoshopped onto the body.

But in panel two, young Fred tells us that the captured one is actually not the University of Cincinnati basketball coach, but someone else in a rubber Mick mask. So in panel three, Fred rips off the mask and voila! — the scoundrel is revealed to be Marvin Lewis, wide-eyed and flashing his very best smile under a Bengals ballcap. Though Marvin surely meant nothing of the sort when the photo was taken, in this use he seems to be mocking Fred and the rest of us.    

A friend, an ex-Cincinnati sportswriter like me, sent me that on my phone. Like him, I found it very funny but also very sad. 

Indeed, the Verdict of the Fans is in, and Cronin is now placed alongside Lewis as the face of local frustration. He’s the leader of a team that commits the cardinal sin of being good enough to consistently reach the postseason and bad enough to lose early every time. Cronin has taken UC to eight straight NCAA tournaments but has reached the Sweet 16 only once (and no farther). Lewis, though troubled by losing seasons the last two years, remains the NFL’s image of unfulfilled promise, having guided seven Bengals teams to first-round playoff losses, including five straight from 2011-15.

Pause to digress here: I’m aware that Xavier has its own brand of basketball angst right now. The Musketeers have the most NCAA tournament appearances (26) in the 64-team era (1985-present) without reaching the Final Four. But it’s not quite the same experience as Mick and Marvin — XU has won its way to three Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights since 2008 — and public reaction to this past Black Sunday has reinforced my feeling that way more people in Cincinnati really care about the Bearcats than the Muskies.

If we judged things differently, had another value system, Mick and Marvin would be hailed as deserving of a lot of credit. Both took their programs from arguably the lowest points in their histories to a degree of national prominence. In the 1950s and ‘60s, when we weren’t so conditioned to granting only one team a Shining Moment in any given season, Mick’s Bearcats and Marvin’s Bengals might have gotten far more love for their performances.

But we are what we have become, and in the un-serious world of sports today, this is deadly serious stuff. It’s not the kind of thing a fan or a city shakes off in a few weeks. It lingers like black mold, resists being scrubbed away. It dampens the enthusiasm that should normally arise for the next regular season, because past regular-season accomplishments have served only to set up a bruising fall. Though fans understand you will never win it all every year, they sour when not even once in a decade or more can you win it all, or even win a few along the postseason road.

I lived it for Marvin’s five straight falls, as Bengals public relations director, and saw the team struggle to sell tickets despite accumulating one of the NFL’s top-five regular-season win percentages over the span.

When I first began 32 years of daily life with the Bengals, as a Cincinnati Post beat writer in 1984, I never would have imagined that the franchise would fail to fill its stadium for a consistently good team.

Paradoxically for the Bengals, the losing (but not horrible) seasons of 2016-17 have lifted the gloomy fog a bit entering 2018. Even though Lewis was re-upped for ’18-’19, a stay-the-course move that produced considerable fan anger six weeks ago, the desire for just a return to a winning season has been freshened. The team has since made a number of offseason moves meeting wide approval, led by the signing of a new and well-regarded left offensive tackle, and more people than I’d have thought now seem willing to give Lewis a new benefit of the doubt.

But for Cronin and the Bearcats, it’s the pits right now. The 2018-19 season inevitably looms as just another year of Lucy tricking poor Charlie Brown, and a hot start to the regular campaign won’t be sufficient to shake that.

In a sense, UC is lucky that it will open a brand-new Fifth Third arena in the fall, with a gala home opener against Ohio State on the docket.

But on the flip side, the hangover from recent Miserable Marches will take something away from the festivities. The pall from Sunday’s Round of 32 loss to Nevada will still be palpable, in large part because UC squandered the largest second-half lead (22 points at 65-43) in Big Dance history. Some fans have firmly resolved to “never get over it,” and as we ponder the Mick-Marvin connection, it’s a fitting partner to the last playoff loss by the Bengals, the infamous Paul Brown Stadium meltdown to Pittsburgh after the 2015 season.

So what to do now, Cincinnati? Only one thing, really: Suck it up as best you can.

Realize that sports really are just one huge soap opera, all about entertainment, and that being partner to memorable losses is still more entertaining than not being in the mix at all. You hurt from UC-Nevada and Bengals-Steelers, but at least for a while they kept our lives from being boring. We’ve got stories to tell.

So you go, Mick, and get ‘em, Marvin. I was thinking it was Shakespeare who said it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, but as I look it up I see it was actually Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Whatever. Whoever says it, it’s as true as it is painful. 

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