Sweet Taste of Success

UC football caps a 20-year rebuilding project with a trip to the program’s biggest bowl game ever

Nobody has ever accused the University of Cincinnati of overemphasizing football — probably not even in 1885, when UC became the fifth American university to start a football team.

For more than 120 years, locals wondered why the university should even bother with it. The university obliged, so much as it could, by barely bothering with it.

For most of the last 31 years, since UC joined the state university system in 1977, the football team rolled out every year without even local curiosity, which probably was for the best. In those first 15 years after joining the state system, UC forged the dismal reputation it’s fought ever since, totaling 58 wins, 114 losses and four ties.

The failures are still impossible to forget, especially the bad 1980s, assuming we paid attention in the first place. If the Bearcats didn’t lose 45-10 to whomever they played, it was bound to happen the following week anyway.

To watch UC football 20 years ago was to endure such remarkable performances as a 40-16 loss to Indiana State in 1987, a 57-3 loss at Miami (Fla.) in 1988, a 69-3 loss at West Virginia in 1989, a 56-3 loss at home to Northern Illinois that same year, losses of 63-10 at Iowa and 70-21 at Florida State in 1990 and an 81-0 pasting at Penn State in 1991.

Seldom was UC football mentioned in the mass media, and almost never was it mentioned by the general public. As problems went, UC football didn’t matter. To most minds, Cincinnati is a town with plenty enough football more worthy, especially at the high school level and including the Bengals, who went to Super Bowls back in those days when UC football was at its worst.

In a flash of two years, UC’s football reputation has changed. Today, with the Bengals at their worst, UC football is the star of the Cincinnati athletic scene.

The Bearcats are a rarity among Cincinnati’s major athletic teams. They’re winners in a town starved for winners.

[For what it all means to UC fans, see Danny Cross' essay "I'm Not a Loser." See more photos from UC's recent home wins over Pitt and Syracuse here.]

On Nov. 29, the Bearcats ran onto their 106-year-old field at their 84-year-old Nippert Stadium with a major bowl bid already clinched. A near sellout crowd helped coronate them as Big East Conference champions with a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl game in the bag.

The Bearcats did their part, swamping Syracuse 30-10. A day later, the new BCS rankings put the Bearcats at No. 13, the highest football ranking in school history.

It’s a daunting task to put UC’s qualification for a BCS bowl into perspective, because the facts involved are so fantastic. Indeed, they’re barely believable. But it’s more daunting to describe how far UC football has come in the last three years because it really took much longer and the implied description of the previous 120 years is so unflattering.

If you love UC, the past is mysterious and painful. Even if you’re indifferent about UC, it’s surely mysterious.

From the depths of despair

Despite fielding the fifth oldest college football program, UC started this season with the 58th most college football victories. The four older programs all hold winning records historically, as do many younger operations.

Rutgers, which established the first college football team in 1869, might rival UC for historic futility but at least has won more than it’s lost. Michigan (1879) has won 872 games, more than any other college football program. Navy (1880) ranked highly during the World War II years and sometimes contended for the national championship through the 1950s, producing a Heisman Trophy in 1963 via Cincinnati native Roger Staubach. Minnesota (1883) contended for national titles in four decades (the 1930s through the 1960s), winning five of them.

The traditional powers — schools like Nebraska, Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Southern California — all started football later than UC. All have won at least 200 more football games than the Bearcats.

Even counting Brian Kelly’s 21-5 record in the last two years as UC’s head football coach, the Bearcats historically are 535-541-51. Among the 70 college football programs with the most victories entering this season, only UC and Oklahoma State held losing records.

To the new UC football fan, perhaps, the rise toward the top is a sudden development due entirely to Kelly’s genius. Undeniably, he’s taken UC football to heights never before achieved.

Even the great Sid Gillman couldn’t bring UC this far in the national consciousness. He produced dominant teams combining for a 35-5-1 record from 1951 through 1954, but none of his teams ever finished a season in the national rankings.

When UC finished last year ranked 17th by the Associated Press and 20th by the coaches, it marked the very first time UC ended a season with a place in the polls. But that climb began a long time ago, and many of the heroes are long gone.

Begin with the university administrators and legislators responsible for the Shoemaker Center, now Fifth Third Arena, which opened in 1989. Most famously, The Shoe gave UC’s basketball team a campus home that Bob Huggins leveraged into national contention in the 1990s. Those developments would loom large in UC’s oncoming football prosperity.

Less famously, The Shoe finally brought the football program into the 20th century with dressing quarters, meeting rooms and workout facilities to replace the cramped dungeons beneath Nippert Stadium, where even small men couldn’t stand up straight without scraping their heads against the ceiling.

Along with The Shoe in 1989 came Tim Murphy, hired from Maine to rebuild UC’s dilapidated football program. He coached UC during the program’s darkest days, including finishes of 1-9-1 in 1989 and 1-10 in 1990.

But his five-year program worked, both for himself and for UC. In 1993, Murphy brought in an 8-3 record, showing not only that UC could somehow win but also setting himself up for his dream job at Harvard, which he still holds.

In 1994, UC hired Rick Minter, Lou Holtz’s defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Unlike other coaches who used UC as a stepping stone, Minter hung around for 10 years, injecting the program with much-needed continuity.

Meanwhile, the basketball program broke free from the Metro Conference, in which the financial arrangements damaged everyone but Louisville, to help found the Great Midwest Conference.

As Huggins drove UC into the national basketball picture, Minter started producing representative, defense-oriented football teams. Meanwhile, the landscape in college football dictated that UC must find a conference for its football program, as new television arrangements made independence untenable. UC thus helped found Conference-USA in 1996.

If Conference-USA didn’t capture the public imagination, it placed UC football on a solid foundation, including bowl arrangements and meaningful schedules. Suddenly, UC football teams entered seasons with determinate goals and the path toward achieving them.

The bowl games didn’t amount to much, but they were much more than nothing. Playing in the Humanitarian Bowl, the Motor City Bowl and the New Orleans Bowl increased visibility and practice time, but they still didn’t fire up Cincinnati football fans.

UC football changed forever

The most crucial development in UC football history took place far away — in Boston, Miami and Blacksburg, Va. — back in 2003, when Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech decided to jump from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Like that, the Big East lost three signature football programs and desperately needed replacements.

As strong basketball schools, the likes of UC and Louisville would help make the Big East basketball conference stronger than ever. And the football programs at UC, Louisville and South Florida, thanks largely to their development through Conference-USA, were strong enough to replenish the Big East’s football league.

The three new schools officially joined the Big East in 2005. By then, UC had run off Minter and Huggins, while Athletic Director Bob Goin retired. All have seen the fruits of their labors, but none have tasted them.

The effects of Big East membership couldn’t be more dramatic. The Big East needed those football programs simply to hang onto its status as a BCS conference with automatic entitlement to the big checks written by the big BCS bowls.

Meanwhile, the new programs all have leveraged that BCS status to bring in better recruits. In recent years, both Louisville and South Florida took cracks at the top national ranking. UC, playing in a league with the top ranking at stake, made headlines by playing the spoiler role before climbing to the league title this year.

Three years ago, Cincinnatians picked up their ringing telephones to hear a recorded message from the UC football coach at the time, Mark Dantonio, begging them to visit Nippert Stadium for a game. Two weeks ago, on Nov. 22, after the Bearcats beat Pittsburgh before a sellout crowd exceeding 35,000 at Nippert Stadium, Kelly said on ESPN, “We need more seats.”

That’s how far UC football has come.

The Bearcats probably are going to the Orange Bowl. If not, it’s the Sugar Bowl.

Wherever they go, it’s big. Going forward, UC can go toe-to-toe with the more established programs to recruit the top Cincinnati area players, who are good enough to win at the national level.

Along with the ascendance comes angst, of course. UC fans, now watching a winner, equally watch the news to see if Kelly can be seduced into another job.

But even if Kelly leaves, the Big East stays. So long as UC keeps up with the facilities arms race and hires good coaches, the groundwork laid slowly during the last 20 years will not go to waste.

Strange as it sounds, UC football might be changed forever. Between Brian Kelly and the past 20 years, UC could be on the verge of such a good program that he’ll choose it as his place to make his mark.

Best of all, though, this transformation could all happen without anyone accusing UC of overemphasizing football.

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