For years, Bearcat fans have been praying for a spot in a Power 5 conference. On Monday afternoon, the latest answer was hollered down from the sports gods, and they’ve given us a resounding “no.” I won’t drag into how the entire process was a sham from the start or how it likely cost a cash-strapped athletic department seven figures to end up being completely disrespected by Big 12 brass with a nonsense press conference and a patronizing pat on the back. In fact, this will be the opposite of that.
For months, whenever family or friends asked me about the looming Big 12 decision, I gave the same answer: “Nobody knows, but I’m very optimistic.” As the start of the 2016 football season came and went, that answer changed. “Nobody knows. I just want this over with, regardless of the outcome.” True to my word, Cincinnati got rejected, and I genuinely feel a sense of relief. It’s certainly not the outcome I wanted, and I’m angry, but it’s over with, and we can all move on. What now?
Welcome to the American Athletic Conference, where nobody likes each other and everybody wants out.
The former is a great ingredient for college athletics. Things work well with a little disdain. Look at how fantastic the basketball series between the Bearcats and Huskies has been in the past five years. The two programs do not like each other, and it works. Contrast that with the currently laughable Battle for the Bell with Miami. It’s a “rivalry” without any edge. As a result, neither team seems to care much on the field, and the fans certainly don’t circle it on the calendar.
Meanwhile, the latter has always been one of the biggest drawbacks of life in the AAC. Between the fans and the universities themselves, it has always been obvious that nobody wanted to be here. Aside from Tulsa and Navy, every single one of the conference’s 12 member schools applied for Big 12 consideration. For schools like Cincinnati and Connecticut, the AAC has never been anything more than a temporary purgatory before the Power 5 came calling us back home. Fans of AAC schools with their sights set on bigger things have felt reluctant to fully invest in the conference for this reason.
It’s now October 2016 and the last bus to freedom for the foreseeable future just kicked us to the curb and sped off without any passengers. Rather than sit at the bus stop and feel sorry for ourselves, let’s turn around and walk back to the American and make the best of it.
I say this knowing that it’s not what anybody wants to hear right now, but things could be a lot worse than the American Athletic Conference. Things could be a lot worse for the Bearcats, in general.
There is no way to slice the AAC’s television deal that makes it look like a positive. The Bearcats are getting much less than they got in the Big East, much less than they’d get in the Big 12, and much less than they currently deserve. Secondly, UC has managed to be on the wrong end of every large and small decision by the conference, from the basketball tournament location to instant replays. The Bearcats have gotten slighted on just about everything, macro and micro. That’s just the truth. If you’re the conspiracy type, you probably think that’s intentional. I wouldn’t blame you.
Other aspects of the conference, however, work nicely for UC. First and foremost, this group of athletic departments is sneaky talented. There are the obvious ones like Houston, who is on track to appear in a New Year’s bowl for the second straight season, and UConn, who won the conference a national championship in basketball in 2014.
In football, there is a lot to be proud of. Programs like Cincinnati, UCF, ECU, and Navy are traditionally strong despite varying states of current success. Programs like Houston, Memphis, USF, and Temple have experienced a renaissance in the confines of the AAC. UConn and Tulsa seem to be turning the page as we speak, and bottom-feeders SMU and Tulane made recent hires that should put them on track for success in the near future. The American is easily the best Group of 5 football conference.
There are also great facilities. There are more newer stadiums than in the Old Big East, and everything is miles ahead of where they were in the Conference USA days. Nippert just underwent its $86 million facelift, with more tweaks to come. UCF has a nine-year-old stadium that underwent renovations last season. ECU expanded to 50,000 seats six years ago, and they routinely fill those. Houston has a brand new stadium, and so does Tulane. In addition, everyone seems to be hitting their stride, and these seats are getting filled. Of the 12 stadiums in the conference, six have set single-game attendance records while in the American and several others have come close. While conference attendance in the AAC is still beneath the Power 5, it’s much better than any other Group of 5 conference, and that gap will continue to widen. The notion that every team in the conference is in a simultaneous Great Depression is false.
There is also great potential for rivalry here. UC and Houston split one-possession games in 2014 and 2015 and the Bearcats led the Top 10 Cougars in the fourth quarter this season. The Bearcats won heart-stoppers against ECU in 2014 and 2015, and the Pirates have the kind of fan base that’s mean enough to fight back. I like it. USF was an old Big East foe and is back to its winning ways. UConn is an old Big East foe and a strong basketball rival that looks to be heading in the right direction. Memphis is an old C-USA opponent that has a team Tiger fans can be proud of. UC hasn’t even faced Navy yet, and they’re strong every year. If Bearcat fans can step back from the ledge and embrace the AAC as home for the time being, there are a few teams to get excited about playing each year. They aren’t Oklahoma or Texas, but they also aren’t UAB, Southern Mississippi, Syracuse, or Rutgers, who have adorned the schedule in the past.
In addition to all of this — while it’s depressing to say—UC’s football program is on uneasy footing right now. While the lack of Power 5 prestige and money will likely prevent us from landing the country’s hottest football coach, the upward mobility within the conference will entice many when combined with the competition, facilities, and fan support I mentioned above. Nobody wants to reconfigure their football program, but I’d much rather do it in the AAC than in a power conference where teams like Purdue, Iowa State, and Boston College get beaten down by an onslaught of rich powerhouses every time they try to get over the hump. Today, the Bearcats sit in last place. With a few tweaks next season, they could easily play in the AAC Championship Game. That kind of mobility simply isn’t possible in the Power 5.
AAC football is disappointing in contrast to the Big 12, but even the biggest haters have to admit that this conference is much stronger than expected. In fact, it’s so strong that I think it actually caught UC off guard and beat them into the 2016 basement. It’s not fun right now, but so many of the programs we overlooked have become worthy opponents. Let’s go get back on top.
In basketball, things aren’t quite as rosy, but they’re similar. The rest of the conference isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be, and certainly not as strong as the Old Big East. However, that matters much less. The Bearcats made a name for themselves under Bob Huggins playing in C-USA. They were consistently ranked in the Top 10 and did just fine winning games and drawing fans without the help of top flight competition. Ask UConn if their conference affiliation mattered when they won the national championship in 2014.
If SMU hadn’t gone and gotten themselves banned from postseason play, the AAC would’ve had five teams in the tournament last year. That’s nearly half of the conference, more teams than the SEC, and as many as the New Big East. The top half of the American is competitive and figures to stay that way.
Cincinnati, UConn, Memphis, and Temple are all “basketball schools.” SMU is turning itself into one, and Houston has enough history to lean on while it tries to build itself back up to relevance with an arena overhaul on the way. Tulsa, meanwhile, is in the midst of rekindling their success from 1994–2003 when they made the tournament eight times, reaching two Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight. They rejoined March Madness in 2014 and 2016 and are emerging as an unexpected road block on UC’s schedule every year.
The rivalry situation in the American is just fine. Following the 2014 tournament, I wrote on Cincy On The Prowl how the AAC is ripe for rivalry. Two and a half years later, I think that’s still correct. There is some good competition, some teams that are easy to hate, and we’ll continue to fight for the American title every year.
The Bearcats are still led by Mick Cronin, who seems to be firmly planted in Clifton, come hell or high water. His system is running seamlessly, and the Bearcats have made The Dance six straight years and 20 of the last 25. Recruiting at UC is the best its been in a while, with talented kids coming in every class now. Troy Caupain is a senior, Gary Clark is a junior, Jacob Evans is a sophomore, and local kid Jarron Cumberland is a freshman. How about that?
I don’t have a problem with selling people on Bearcats football, but if you aren’t excited about Bearcats basketball, I cannot help you.
This positive outlook comes with some caveats.
On the football side, I’m still of the opinion that the Bearcats need to make a coaching change. It remains to be seen what Mike Bohn’s thinking is in regards to Tommy Tuberville, but I would imagine that being relegated to the AAC will only hurt his chances at making it to 2017. Now is not the time to grow complacent. We must keep fighting forward. If you think attendance is a bummer this season, I’d hate to see it next year following a Big 12 rejection, two consecutive disappointing seasons, and Tuberville returning to roam the sidelines. That sounds like a great way to scare off everyone but the diehard fan.
On the basketball side, the arena renovation needs to get done. I worry about their plans given the financial constraints of the AAC and the donor fatigue of having just finished Nippert without a Power 5 ticket to show for it. Fifth Third Arena has grown stale and Mick Cronin deserves more for what he’s done at UC. It’s hard enough recruiting in the AAC. Doing it in an increasingly outdated arena will make it all but impossible. Getting a fresh makeover will make The Shoe one of the country’s finest on-campus arenas. It’ll boost recruiting and it will immensely help attendance and season ticket sales for a fan base whose only real complaint right now is that watching games in person is unpleasant and uncomfortable.
My last note is a call to action. Like much of my piece, it’s not what fans want to hear right now, but here it is: Suck it up.
If your main criteria for supporting a team is the quality of teams they face, then I question how much you love that team in the first place.
UC is not a professional sports franchise. They aren’t a business who deserves to have support waver depending on the product. UC is your alma mater. Cincinnati is your city. These kids rejected other schools to come and play in Clifton. Give them your support. Things aren’t perfect right now. I’m as frustrated as anyone. I want UC to make changes, and I’ve made that clear. However, I will not let that impact my love for my alma mater.
We have a fantastic basketball coach and a perennial tournament team. We have a fantastic baseball coach and a young team that’s making leaps every year. We have a fantastic men’s soccer coach who’s been in Clifton since 2001 and currently has the Bearcats tied for first place. We have a fantastic women’s soccer coach who stunned multiple ranked teams to win the conference tournament last year. We have a fantastic volleyball coach who is ripping through the AAC with one of the best players in the country. We have a fantastic swimming and diving coach and one of the best swimmers in the country. All-American Adrian Valles competed in the NCAA Championships in the pole fault, and Austin Squires and the men’s golf team just won the Firestone Invitational.
Get on board.
Mo Egger penned a rousing column Wednesday, and I’ll echo his message: Go watch the Bearcats.
There is plenty to be excited about at UC with plenty more to come. I believe the Big 12 made a big mistake in rejecting Cincinnati, and the vast majority of national media agrees. If we give up now, the idiots in Dallas win. Let’s make those guys look foolish.
Go Bearcats. Forever.