CINCINNATI -- All the rage a few years back at ESPN and other conversation-inducing sports talk outlets was to declare who made up the Mount Rushmores for various teams, sports and leagues – the four faces that best represented each.
Last weekend’s unveiling of the Pete Rose statue at Great American Ball Park was a reminder that we have a lot of options for an all-time Cincinnati sports Mount Rushmore. The Big Red Machine’s Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan were gathered and could all make a case for that all-time honor here, though Anthony Munoz, Barry Larkin, Oscar Robertson and others can make arguments to have their faces etched into the side of a mountain as well.
But while we have lots of great sports figures historically, what if you had to pick a Cincinnati sports Mount Rushmore for just the 21st century?
It gets a lot trickier, both because it’s comparatively a short amount of time and there have been no Super Bowl, World Series or Final Four teams here since 1992 (UC hoops). And no one seems to be on a definite path to a Hall of Fame yet this century.
If one were to create this monument to our 21st century stars, basic criteria would need to be established. We’ll go with this:
The prime of the career has to have been since 2000. So while Larkin is an all-time great, his greatness was mainly in the ‘90s, so he wouldn’t qualify.
The person had to have played here or is from here. Even though someone like NFL star Luke Kuechly doesn’t play for the Bengals, his St. Xavier connection would qualify him.
Great statistics, accolades and/or accomplishments.
Recognition beyond Cincinnati.
Now that we have that settled, let’s start by looking at the Reds. There have been very good seasons and very bad ones for the franchise this century.
There are many names that can be thrown out there. Ken Griffey Jr. should have been a shoe-in, arriving for the 2000 season, but injuries kept him from ever reaching the Hall of Fame numbers he put up in Seattle.
Adam Dunn was Paul Bunyan-like with his moonshot homers, but struck out too much and was a butcher in the field. Sean Casey was a beloved professional hitter, but not really elite. Jay Bruce was too inconsistent. Aroldis Chapman was a one-trick pony – an impressive trick for sure though. Homer Bailey's two no-hitters are pretty sweet, but he seems to be hurt the rest of the time. Todd Frazier had THE highlight of this era with his home run derby win, but he wasn't great long enough. Dusty Baker got run out of town despite winning.
Truthfully, there are only two definite Reds candidates.
Joey Votto has been an absolute stud for the Reds since he arrived in 2007. A most valuable player award in 2010, a .312 career batting average, a Gold Glove, four all-star appearances and three playoff appearances make him very worthy. His critics say he walks too much and he’s a bit enigmatic, but he’s a bona fide star.
Brandon Phillips returned last month for the first time since being traded to the Atlanta Braves and declared, “I’m still Mr. Cincinnati.” Many would debate that, but a standing ovation upon his return and an impressive statistical resume bolster his case.
Phillips is in the Reds’ all-time top 10 in several categories including runs scored, hits, doubles, total bases and RBI. He also won four Gold Gloves and was a three-time all-star here. Mr. Cincinnati or not, he was a very good player for the Reds.
The Bengals are in a similar boat as the Reds. They’ve had playoff seasons and some subpar years since 2000. They’ve had seven playoff appearances in this century but have not won a single playoff game.
One would first look at the quarterbacks of the era. Carson Palmer had some big seasons here but a sub-.500 record with the Bengals. We also wouldn’t want someone on our Mount Rushmore who pursued retirement to force his way out of town.
Andy Dalton has been a much more loyal soldier and has been a winner, but hasn’t quite reached elite monument status. If he ends the playoff drought, we can talk.
Other nominees include T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He had a nice career but doesn’t make the cut. Rudi Johnson is among the team’s all-time leaders in every rushing category, but when you think Bengals, do you think Rudi Johnson right away? Corey Dillon’s Bengals career was split between the ‘90s and 2000s and he said he would rather have flipped burgers than stayed here. Willie Anderson and Andrew Whitworth were excellent offensive linemen, but they’re just not sexy picks for this.
Marvin Lewis has longevity, but that lack of playoff wins keeps him off.
The two legitimate nominees are both wide receivers. Chad Johnson and A.J. Green definitely have elite status on their resumes.
Johnson might be remembered for silly touchdown celebrations, catch phrases and changing his name to Ochocinco as much as anything, but he also holds team career records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He also went to six Pro Bowls and was twice a first-team All-Pro.
Green is a work in progress, but he’s on a similar path, making the Pro Bowl in all six seasons he’s been in the NFL. If he stays healthy, he will likely take some of Johnson’s records. He’s a much quieter player, but also one of the NFL’s most exciting.
At least one of these guys has to make our Rushmore.
When we look at college sports, we’re mainly talking basketball. While the Cincinnati Bearcats football team has had some great seasons and quality players like Tony Pike, Travis Kelce, Isaiah Pead and Mardy Gilyard, they don’t ascend above the popularity of hoops in this town.
However, the post-Bob Huggins era hasn’t produced the same big-name UC players as the ‘90s. The tail end of Steve Logan’s All-American career was in 2002, but he never amounted to anything as a pro. Sean Kilpatrick and Lance Stephenson had great careers, but not quite spectacular enough to make this list.
UC coach Mick Cronin deserves a ton of credit for bringing the program back from the dead, but he will always live in the shadow of Huggins for UC fans.
Over at Xavier, current coach Chris Mack is making a nice case for our mountain, but he needs more time and a possibly a Final Four appearance to get into the argument.
The Musketeers have boasted many stars this century, including Romain Sato, Jordan Crawford and current stalwart Trevon Bluiett. But one hoopster sticks out as a nominee.
David West’s Xavier career included 2000-2003, which finished with him as a first-team All-American and national player of the year. He was a first-round draft pick in 2003 and still plays in the NBA. He's had two All-Star appearances and this season he earned his first NBA championship ring as a key role-player for the Golden State Warriors.
Side note: No, I didn’t forget about Miami product Ben Roethlisberger. But come on, really? He can be on Pittsburgh's version with Sidney Crosby, a pierogi and a one of those Primanti Bros. French fry sandwiches.
With the major sports aside, who else gets a mention? Adrien Broner has been an excellent boxer, but makes more headlines for bad behavior.
We've had some terrific Olympians like Kayla Harrison, Gary Hall Jr. and Nick Goepper, but could most people pick them out of a lineup or say in which sport each participated? That's not to belittle them, it's just pointing out that they're not our most recognizable athletes.
There are plenty of high school stars from here who have gone on to big things, including St. X’s Kuechly (Carolina Panthers), Elder’s Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota Vikings) Sycamore’s Kevin Youkilis and Madeira’s Andrew Benintendi (Boston Red Sox) and Middletown’s Kyle Schwarber (Chicago Cubs). Add Franklin’s Luke Kennard, fresh off being drafted to the NBA.
Here’s a former local high school star that deserves the nomination: St. Ursula product Heather Mitts.
After an All-American college soccer career that included a national championship at the University of Florida, Mitts was a women’s soccer pioneer as a member of the newly formed Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001.
More notable is Mitts’ career with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, on which the right back won Olympic gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012. She also was part of the 2011 World Cup team that finished second. She might not be a Bengal or Red, but she's made Cincinnati proud on a world stage and was part of the foundation of the U.S. women’s program that’s so dominant today.
So who are the final four? Based on the criteria established, here they are:
Joey Votto -- One of the best in the business whose consistency is unmatched among recent Reds.
Chad Johnson -- The stats back up the flamboyance and fun.
David West -- Quality longevity wins this honor.
Heather Mitts -- A legend of the juggernaut U.S. women's soccer program.
Now, don’t get mad. This is a hypothetical exercise -- we’re not actually carving this into Mount Adams. It would probably slide down the hill anyway if we did. But give it some thought and decide who you would put on Cincinnati’s 21st century sports Mount Rushmore.
Dave Niinemets is a Digital Enterprise Editor at WCPO.com and oversees sports content for the digital team.