Editor's note: Avid readers may recognize this story from 2016. I refreshed it to reflect stats through 2017's matchup.
Because of recent history, the Battle for the Victory Bell is a tough one to summarize. Cincinnati and Miami have been meeting since 1888, making it the oldest non-conference rivalry in America. Going by total games, it’s the second-oldest rivalry in FBS football, trailing only Minnesota-Wisconsin.
Considering the winding histories of the two schools, the rivalry is remarkably close. After 122 meetings, Miami holds just a three-game lead in the series. What’s more, I ran the numbers prior to 2015’s meeting, and the total score blew me away. A few years ago, this series stretched 119 meetings and just three points separated the teams.
The gap has widened a bit in recent years, and UC now leads 1,995 to 1,984. If you want to get mathematical, this means that the “average score” of a UC-Miami game has the Bearcats winning 16.35 to 16.26. It goes without saying, but that is insanely close, especially for a rivalry of this age.
For a while there, it felt like the game has lost its luster. For many years, this was the season's marquee game, played on Thanksgiving Day. Even back in the '40s when UC was all kinds of irrelevant, fans still packed Nippert for the Battle for the Victory Bell. Ben Roethlisberger left Oxford in 2003, and things became different. The Bearcats hit a golden age, the RedHawks took a nose dive. Cincinnati joined a power conference, Miami struggled to compete in the MAC. UC won ten in a row, MU seemed lucky to keep it close.
Introducing Tommy Tuberville. Apparently noticing that Cincinnati was no longer in a Power Five conference, Tuberville sough to make UC vs Miami Great Again. The Bearcat roster thinned, Miami climbed out of the depths of the MAC basement, and the game has been intense again.
In the first seven meetings of Cincinnati's current win streak, their average margin of victory was 29.6 points. Since the start of the Tuberville era, the winning has continued for the Red & Black, but the margin of victory has slipped to just 7.2 points. Cincinnati hasn't won by more than one score since 2013. Last season's game required a real-life miracle. Miami is nipping at the Bearcats' heels.
Here's some of the history. There are an impossible 122 meetings to sort through, so please allow me to shorten things and pick some notables.
All-time series record: Miami leads, 59–56–7
First meeting: 1888
Last meeting: 2017
Current streak: Cincinnati has won 12 straight
Record in Cincinnati: Miami leads, 43–42–5
Streak in Cincinnati: Cincinnati has won seven straight
December 8, 1888 — Bearcats 0, Miami 0
In December 1888, Ohio became the 20th state to officially join the college football world, as Cincinnati and Miami met for the first official game in the state’s history. The contest was played in freezing rain, there were no officials, and nobody had uniforms. The players wore “track suits and gym shoes,” and who knows what those looked like in the 1880s. According to Miami, the Oxford squad averaged 140 pounds and included both students and faculty. The teams battled it out to a 0–0 draw, and a rivalry was born.
October 20, 1894 — Cincinnati 6, Miami 0
It was just the fifth meeting in series history, and the Cincinnati yearbook was already referring to Miami as “our old rivals.” A 98-yard UC drive late in the first half was capped with a rushing touchdown by Cincinnati RB John Howard Melish (pictured above, sitting on floor, far left). UC held on to win its first game in the series by a score of 6–0.
(Trying to avoid tangents here, but here’s a small one: Melish was born in Milford in 1874, graduated from UC in 1895, went to Harvard for a year, got a four-year degree from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, came back to UC to serve as university chaplain until 1904, and then moved to Brooklyn to serve in Holy Trinity Church. He died in March 1969, which means he was around to see Bearcats QB Greg Cook get drafted #5 by the Bengals in the ’69 NFL Draft.)
November 25, 1909 — Cincinnati 10, Miami 6
Cincinnati and Miami meeting on Thanksgiving would become a tradition, and this was the first Turkey Day matchup. The Bearcats sprung the upset, and a large Miami contingent quietly left, according to the Enquirer. Following the victory, fans stormed the field, “throwing caps, hats, canes, and horns over the goal post,” and hoisted head coach Robert Burch and captain Ernie DuBray onto their shoulders in celebration.
The game was played in Cincinnati at League Park, also known as Palace of the Fans. Three years later, Crosley Field would be built on the site.
November 27, 1914 — Miami 20, Cincinnati 13
In truth, I don’t think there’s anything very notable about this game. I chose it because it’s the first Miami game that I have a photo for.
UC took Carson Field for the final game of 1914 against a much bigger Miami squad, and stunned the large crowd by surging to a 13–0 halftime lead. In the second half, with star UC players like Leonard “Teddy” Baehr sidelined, MU stormed back to win. If Teddy sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the Bearcats namesake. The name “Bearcats” was first used following a game against Kentucky that October, in reference to Mr. Baehr.
November 29, 1923 — Cincinnati 23, Miami 0
The 1923 matchup is the most infamous of all. Conditions at Carson Field were so bad that all players were forced to wear mud cleats to improve grip. Being the team’s center, James Gamble “Jimmy” Nippert was battling it out in the trenches. At some point during the game, Nippert was gashed by a cleat, and the wound filled with mud. He didn’t realize how bad he’d been cut, and remained in the game until the final whistle.
After the game, he returned to his family home in Westwood. Drugs and medical care were lacking during that time, so his condition quickly worsened. On Christmas Day, he died of blood poisoning.
Jimmy’s grandfather, James Gamble of Procter & Gamble, donated $250,000 ($3.52m adjusted for inflation) to UC to have the stadium completed in his grandson’s honor. The new Nippert Stadium included state-of-the-art training rooms that would allow for on-site medical care for injured players, essentially preventing other UC athletes from suffering the same fate Jimmy did.
Out of the 1923 game, UC lost a star player and student but gained a stadium that continues to shine 92 years later.
November 27, 1924 — Cincinnati 8, Miami 7
The first Cincinnati-Miami game at Nippert Stadium was a thriller. The stadium was dedicated three weeks prior, and fans filled the stands to see the old rivalry in a pristine venue.
The game was scoreless for the first three quarters. To open the fourth, Miami found the end zone to take a 7–0 lead. I’ll defer to the Enquirer, because I thought this passage was hilarious:
Then Miami scored and the stands groaned.
One spectator remarked, “It’s all over now, we’ve lost another one.”
That spectator, however, did not know of the fighting heart which the Bearcats beloved coach, George McLaren, had instilled in them.
With the words of their coach ringing in their ears that they are never beaten until the final whistle sounds, the Bearcats stepped out and began playing the greatest ball any U. of C. team has ever played.
With eight minutes to play, Lee Hallerman stormed through the Miami line to block a punt that would turn into a safety. UC was on the board, trailing 6–2. Four minutes later, UC got the ball back and Bearcats captain Anthony McAndrews dashed 13 yards for the winning score.
It would go down as the first of many remarkable games in Nippert history, and it came against the red and black’s oldest rival. Jimmy Nippert was avenged.
November 28, 1946 — Cincinnati 13, Miami 7
The 50th meeting of the Battle for the Victory Bell was one for the books. Fans packed Nippert to see the rivalry’s Golden Anniversary, and the home crowd got a treat.
The Bearcats were trailing by a point with fewer than 30 seconds remaining when freshman UC quarterback (and Hughes High School product) Tommy O’Malley was inserted into the game and was able to find senior captain Elbie Nickel for a game-winning touchdown. The stands erupted, and the victory capped an 8–2 regular season and sent the Bearcats to their first ever bowl game, where they beat Virginia Tech.
The 1946 game can be pointed to as the dawning of second golden era of the rivalry, following the intense meetings in the ’20s. Here’s why:
- World War II was in the rearview mirror. The Bearcats didn’t play football in 1943 or 1944, and in 1945 the sport was still recovering. 121 schools played the 1942 season, but that number dipped drastically during the war. 1946, however, was finally a return to strength. 120 schools fielded teams and 11 bowl games were played.
- The Victory Bell returned. UC students stole the bell from Miami in the 1890s, and a tradition was born, with the bell going to the winning team each year. At some point in the 1930s, the bell went missing. It resurfaced in time for the 1946 match, perhaps an omen of the rivalry’s returning fervor.
- Cincinnati and Miami would share a conference. That’s right. The nation’s oldest non-conference rivalry was played within the MAC for six seasons from 1947–52.
- Fan interest was at an all-time high. The 1946 match (pictured above) boasted an attendance of somewhere between 28,000 and 30,000, depending on who you ask. Either way, it was a Nippert Stadium record.
- Both teams were really good. In the ten seasons beginning with the 1946 game, UC and Miami split the rivalry down the middle. Each team won five games. Bearcats coaches during that period were Ray Nolting (winner of UC’s first bowl game), Sid Gillman (one of the greatest UC coaches ever, stolen from Miami, only coach in college and pro Hall of Fame), and George Blackburn (also stolen from Miami). Miami’s coaches were Sid Gillman (mentioned above), George Blackburn (mentioned above), Woody Hayes (legendary Ohio State coach), and Ara Parseghian (legendary Notre Dame head coach, coached Rudy). In the six years the schools shared a conference, UC won four MAC titles. In the other two seasons, UC lost to Miami in the final week, finishing in second place while MU won the conference. Seriously, this was an incredible rivalry at the time.
November 21, 1964 — Cincinnati 28, Miami 14
Miami was in the midst of the Bo Schembechler era, winning a MAC title in 1962 and 1965 before Bo fled north to Michigan. The Bearcats struggled to two wins in 1962 before managing a 6–4 record and an MVC title in 1963. More importantly, the Bearcats were struggling in the series. In the previous four meetings, UC lost by two, three, and four points as well as a 38–16 blowout in 1962. They were frustrated.
17,000 fans came out to Nippert despite freezing temperatures to see the Bearcats put themselves back on the map. Legendary Cincinnati QB Brig Owens and RB Al Nelson tore apart the Redskins defense, racking up 343 yards rushing and putting up 28 points, the most by UC against a Miami team since 1952. The win pushed the Bearcats to 7–2 before a Houston win made it eight on the season. It was the best mark since the Gillman era a decade earlier.
November 20, 1971 — Miami 43, Cincinnati 7
In 1971, the rivalry returned to Oxford for the first time since 1898. It could not have gone worse for the Bearcats, as Miami scored their most points of the series and UC could only counter with a freak special teams touchdown early in the second half. Even the weather was bad, and just over 9,000 fans stood out in the cold and wet to see the beatdown.
The Bearcats were pretty good that year, finishing 7–3 if you choose to ignore the Oxford Debacle. Maybe agreeing to alternate stadiums was a bad idea for Cincinnati, because they would lose eight of nine in the series after playing in Oxford in ‘71.
September 13, 1986 — Cincinnati 45, Miami 38
Heading into the 1986 matchup, the Bearcats had lost 12 of 15 in the series, and things looked bad. Miami had finished 8–2 the previous year and looked strong again. The Bearcats, meanwhile, had a losing record in 1985 and didn’t look to be much improved in ’86. Things were tracking for a blowout.
Instead, the Bearcats fought hard.
A crowd of nearly 24,000 came to Riverfront Stadium and saw the highest-scoring game in the rivalry’s history (at that time) as 5'7" Bearcat RB Reggie Taylor racked up an incredible 259 rushing yards and two touchdowns to give UC the comeback victory over the favored Redskins.
The Bearcats fell behind early before surging late and building a 14-point lead. Miami made it a one possession game in the final minute before a controversial onside kick ruling gave the ball back to the Bearcats to run out the clock.
Miami would go on to reach their first bowl game in more than a decade while UC struggled, losing six of its last nine to finish 5–6 on the season. However, the victory was the first of four straight in the series for the Bearcats.
September 17, 1994 — Cincinnati 17, Miami 17
The game has finished in a deadlock seven times, and this is the most recent. In a script you can’t write, UC kicker Jon Bacon drilled a Yager Stadium-record 58-yard field goal to give the Bearcats the lead with 1:19 remaining. Before he could bask in the glory, Miami got the ball back and stormed down the field to tie it on the game’s final play.
“I was in shock,” he said after the game. “The only thing I can compare it to is like getting a winning lottery ticket and having it taken away from you.” It was Bacon’s first career field goal, and it was spoiled.
The 1994 season was even worse for the Bearcats, as they finished 2–8–1 in the first year of the Rick Minter era.
September 27, 2003 — Miami 42, Cincinnati 37
Here are two things that sound foreign now:
- In 2003, the UC-Miami game was sold out… in Oxford.
- In 2003, Miami finished in the Top 10.
What may be the best team in Miami history was led by future Super Bowl QB Ben Roethlisberger. The Bearcats would finish with a losing record that season, landing at 9th in Conference USA. Things looked bleak in Clifton and beautiful in Oxford.
The RedHawks surged to a 28–0 first half lead as UC struggled to simply record a first down. After a Miami touchdown early in fourth quarter, the lead grew to 42–17.
The Bearcats started scoring. First a 98-yard touchdown drive. Then a blocked field goal returned 78 yards for a touchdown. Then an onside kick and another 50-yard drive. Suddenly, it was a one-possession game. The Bearcats defense held on the ensuing Miami possession and UC was going to get the ball back with a less than a minute remaining and a shot to win.
Heartbreak happened when UC returner Thaddeus Lewis fumbled the punt and Miami recovered to win the game. The Bearcats had scored three touchdowns in just over six minutes, but it wouldn’t be enough.
At the time, I’m sure the game felt like a a turning point for the two teams. The victory propelled Miami to a 13-win Top 10 season and pushed UC into the C-USA basement and toward the firing of Rick Minter. I’m sure few could see where things were headed, as the Bearcats hired Mark Dantonio the following year, joined the Big East, and embarked on their own golden age. Miami toiled in the years since, recording just one winning season since 2005, and beating Cincinnati just once since the 2003 escape.
September 16, 2017 — Cincinnati 21, Miami 17
The Bearcats beat Miami yet again last year, but it was easily the closest call in the current 12-year winning streak.
The Bearcats fell down 17-6 with less than five minutes remaining in the game, but Hayden Moore led a 75-yard touchdown drive in just 1:53 to make it a one-score game before a miraculous Malik Clements pick-six gifted Cincinnati a miraculous victory in Oxford.