“I wasn't here when they played for the national championship (’61, ’62 and ’63), and I wasn't here when they went to the Final Four (’92). But I think this will be recorded as one of the best moves that the university has made. How big? Only time will tell. Based on the reactions of the people who have been here 45 years, they view this as one of the premier moves in the overall development of the intercollegiate athletics program.”
— then-University of Cincinnati athletic director Bob Goin on joining the Big East in 2004
Indeed, it seemed like the Big East was the perfect fit for the Bearcats.
It was a premier basketball conference with powers like Syracuse, UConn and Georgetown. UC would be coming in with its Ohio River rival Louisville. And, more importantly, the Big East also gave UC a clear path to a Bowl Championship Series game.
The Bearcats got there, going to the Orange Bowl in 2008 and the Sugar Bowl in ’09. Not bad for a school that had once gone 47 years between bowl bids.
UC would have stayed in the Big East forever. But that version of the Big East no longer exists. Departures by Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville prompted the seven Catholic schools to form a new league without football.
So UC — formerly of the Buckeye Athletic Conference, formerly of the Mid-American Conference, formerly of the Missouri Valley Conference, formerly of the Metro Conference, formerly of Conference USA, formerly of the Great Midwest Conference, formerly of the Big East, currently of the American Athletic Conference — is pushing hard to join the Big 12.
Part of the reason UC has moved so much is the program has changed. From the MVC days to the GMC days, UC was a basketball school first. To wit: The aforementioned 47-year bowl drought.
But as we moved close to the turn of the century, it became clearer than ever that football schools ruled the NCAA.
Conference USA was formed in a merger between the Metro and GMC. Being in a conference helped elevate UC’s football program. The C-USA had affiliates with five bowls. The Bearcats made bowls four of the last five years they played in C-USA, which helps tremendously with recruiting. And the better football made UC attractive to the Big East.
UC football took the next step in the Big East under Brian Kelly: The Bearcats were one of the premier teams in the country.
But when the Big East blew up, that left the football schools scrambling. UC was rebuffed by the ACC. The Bearcats joined the American, along with Central Florida, East Carolina, UConn, Houston, Memphis, Navy (football only), South Florida, SMU, Temple, Tulane and Tulsa.
It’s pretty easy to see why UC would bolt in a second if the Big 12 says yes. Having Texas come to Nippert is a tad better than Tulsa.
I covered UC football for four years — Tim Murphy’s last and Rick Minter’s first three. The Bearcats played Austin Peay at Nippert in my first game on the beat. There were maybe 10,000 people in the stands.
It was hard to imagine in those years that UC would ever get a chance to play in a league with Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 12 is the big time.
“No question,” said Dave Lapham, who did the Big 12 television package up until two years ago. “Football’s religion there. I’ve done an Oklahoma spring game where they darn-near fill up the stadium. It’s incredible. Austin, Texas, is a football mecca. The SEC is probably the most fanatic. But the Big 12 is up there.”
But Lapham thinks UC would have a chance to compete under the right circumstances. He mentioned one thing in UC’s favor: the Big 12 is largely a spread, wide-open offensive league. It’s easier to build a team that plays that style than it is to build a power team like what you see in the SEC.
“It used to be a conference of the haves and have-nots, with Texas and Oklahoma at the top,” he said. “If you would have told me 15 years ago or even five that TCU and Baylor would have been fighting for the Big 12 title, I would have told you you were crazy.
“But if you make the commitment and get it right, you can have tremendous success. Look at what Gary Patterson’s done at TCU.”
So if they get in, things could work out for the Bearcats.
If they don’t get in, the search for a landing spot likely will continue. The Bearcats’ problem is, other than the Big 12, there’s really nowhere to go. The Big 10 is out. The SEC is out. The Pac-12 is out. And the ACC took Louisville over UC.
The Big 12 meets at the end of the month. If UC gets the nod, athletic director Mike Bohn likely will say something like what Goin said back in 2004.