I wrote this article in spring of 2015 for a Magazine Writing class I took at UC. I was pretty happy with how it turned out, but I never tried to publish it anywhere. I remembered it recently and thought it made sense to dust off for the blog. Thanks again to Greg Hand to talking to me for background on this story two and a half years ago.
A Tradition Is Born
The University of Cincinnati established its basketball program during the 1900–01 school year, led by newly appointed football and basketball coach Henry Seldon Pratt. While the team wouldn’t play any games that first year, the program kicked off the following winter.
UC played its first basketball game on Dec. 12, 1901 in a gymnasium located in the basement of the original McMicken Hall, which opened in 1895. The game resulted in a 42–21 victory over Engineers, a non-collegiate team. The basketball program called Old McMicken Hall home for 10 seasons, compiling a record of 53 wins against 32 losses, while notching notable victories over regional teams like Miami, Kentucky, and Ohio State.
The potential of the fledgling program excited head coach Anthony Chez when he was hired in 1902, but the team’s gymnasium did not. According to Bearcats! The Story of Basketball at the University of Cincinnati, Chez said Old McMicken’s cozy confines were as well suited for basketball as “a felt mattress for an oyster bed.” In addition to the many pillars that dangerously dotted the playing surface, the room itself frequently interfered with play. When the ball hit the low ceiling, dislodged plaster fell down upon players, “filling their eyes, nostrils, and throats” and creating a dust cloud heavy enough to obstruct the view of spectators. Chez wasn’t happy with the facility provided by his employer. “We need a new gymnasium badly,” he pleaded.
The final game at McMicken Hall took place on March 10, 1911, a narrow 17–16 Cincinnati victory over rival Miami.
Though Chez left the school before his complaints would be answered, the university finally found a better home for the basketball program in 1912: Schmidlapp Gymnasium.
The Schmidlapp Era Begins
The team’s first game at Schmidlapp Gymnasium took place on Jan. 17, 1912, a 40–22 loss to Earlham, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. The drubbing was foreshadowing for the next decade of Cincinnati basketball, in which the team would manage just one season with a winning record while compiling a pathetic 33 wins against 79 losses.
Despite the losing basketball it saw at the beginning of its tenure, Schmidlapp served the basketball program through some of its most formative moments, including the implementation of the modern basketball net in 1913, and the founding of the “Bearcat” nickname.
For the first 30 years of UC athletic history, the school’s sports teams had always been referred to as simply the “Varsity” or “Red & Black”. Then in October 1914, next door to Schmidlapp Gymnasium, a football game took place at Carson Field against the Kentucky Wildcats. Star fullback Leonard “Teddy” Baehr led the way for UC. In the midst of the hard-fought game, cheerleader Norman “Pat” Lyon chanted, “They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side!” Cincinnati battled to a 14–7 victory and a legend was born.
While the name didn’t immediately stick, on Nov. 16, 1919, the Cincinnati Enquirer became the first media outlet to adopt the nickname in print, referring to UC’s football team as the “Bear Cats”.
Winning Basketball Comes To Clifton
By the time 1918 rolled around, the Bearcats had struggled through seven consecutive losing seasons at Schmidlapp. Boyd Chambers — a football coach at Bethany College in West Virginia — was hired to turn the program around, starting with the 1918–19 season. Chambers became the first UC coach since 1909 to provide any sort of direction for the program. His tenure began with a dismal 3–11 season, but the team reached new heights within a few short years.
Led by coach Chambers (and later Frank Rice), Cincinnati rolled to seven winning seasons in eight years. Before the 1925–26 season, the Bearcats moved from the Ohio Athletic Conference to the Buckeye Intercollegiate Athletic Association. UC made its mark in that first season, cruising to a school-record 17 wins while earning the first conference championship in program history. In their first five seasons in the conference, the Bearcats won four conference titles while dominating opponents at Schmidlapp to the tune of a 50–4 record. The ‘Cats had found their home court advantage in front of packed Cincinnati crowds. The building quickly became associated with vocal and passionate fans.
“After every square inch was occupied, even on the beams, they decided to close the doors on the five hundred people outside,” gushed The Cincinnatian. The dramatic five-year run was capped with a heart-stopping victory over rival Miami.
“With the Burnet Woods gym filled to capacity, the Bearcats and the Big Reds played to an audience which had come to see the Bearcats emerge victorious,” reads the 1929–30 edition of The Cincinnatian. “For to win this game meant first position in the Buckeye race. . . . The last few moments saw the Cincinnati fans in a frenzy as Miami led 33–31. However, the Bearcats managed to tie the score at 33 all, and then both teams tried frantically to work the ball into scoring position. During the final seconds of play, [Robert] White broke through the Big Reds’ defense and tossed the leather sphere through the hoop to win the game 35–33, thus bringing a most successful season to a fitting close.”
Not only did those remarkable five seasons bring a new championship tradition and new fan base to Clifton, it also brought a new rival: Xavier University.
Although the two schools had a history on the football field beginning with their first meeting in December 1918, the inaugural meeting between the crosstown rivals on the hardwood took place on March 7, 1928 — the final game of the season. The Bearcats made the trip to Norwood for the first ever game at Xavier’s brand new Schmidt Field House. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that nearly 10,000 fans crammed into the building to watch Xavier upset heavily favored Cincinnati, 29–25. The teams wouldn’t meet again for 15 years, but the thriller was a perfect prologue for the rivalry it would become. Xavier never played at Schmidlapp.
Struggling To Adjust
The winning tradition fell by the wayside in the early ’30s. After head coaches Chambers and Rice put together five impressive seasons in the late ’20s, Rice was unable to find continued success, amassing a 6–26 record in his final two years at the head of the Bearcats program.
Raymond “Tay” Brown — a former University of Southern California football star — took over prior to the 1933–34 season and found some success in his four years, three times finishing in second place in the conference. This era also saw the first African-American player in school history, Chester Smith. Schmidlapp upheld its reputation is a formidable environment for opponents, and the Bearcats were 28–9 at home during Brown’s tenure. Then on June 2, 1937, the Associated Press reported that Brown had unexpectedly resigned from his position and returned to his hometown to coach the football team at Compton Junior College. Once again, the Bearcats were without a rudder.
The ‘Cats parted ways with the Buckeye Intercollegiate Athletic Conference prior to the 1937–38 season and left the short-lived success of coach Brown behind them, floating through an abyss of losing seasons as an independent program without a conference. The team would manage a winning record just twice in the nine seasons following Brown’s resignation. Four different coaches tried their hand at success in Cincinnati, but nothing seemed to work.
The aura of Schmidlapp was wearing off. Only once in nine seasons were the Bearcats able to surpass six wins at home, a feat that was achieved in five straight campaigns in the ’20s and in three straight campaigns under Brown. The era certainly wasn’t helped by World War II, which had dominated the globe for six years. However, the war ended in the autumn of 1945, sending hoards of former soldiers back to the states, and back to universities.
Socko Brings Dominance
In June 1947, John Albert “Socko” Wiethe — 34-year-old Xavier University graduate and UC assistant football coach — took the reigns of the Bearcats as they joined the Mid-American Conference (MAC). For the first time in a decade, UC had a conference affiliation. Just like they did after joining the Buckeye Intercollegiate Athletic Association over 20 years earlier, the Bearcats took their new conference by storm.
The basketball program’s football neighbors appeared in their first bowl game on New Year’s Day 1947, and the basketball team equaled football’s prestige, surging to a 17–9 record and a MAC championship that school year. Schmidlapp’s crowds returned to form, and the Bearcats posted a 6–1 home record.
Socko and his Bearcats didn’t stop there. The ‘Cats would win the MAC title in their first five seasons in the conference. The 1948–49 season saw the team win a school-record 23 games and achieve their first national ranking, breaking in at number 13 in the very first edition of the Associated Press Poll that January. The Bearcats also managed an incredible 20–1 Schmidlapp record, including 18 consecutive home wins to cap off the five-year run as conference champs.
The five championship seasons also featured the Bearcats’ first All-American. Dick Dallmer earned honorable mention honors in 1948, 1949, and 1950. He also earned team most valuable player honors in the same years, the first Bearcat to win three straight.
In 1951, the Bearcats made their first postseason appearance in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). Widely regarded as the most prestigious postseason tournament at the time, the Bearcats suffered a double overtime loss to St. Boneventure in the opening game.
On Nov. 12, 1952, with a new season just a month away, Weithe resigned from his position. The Associated Press reported the decision to retire from coaching was “because of the physical strain and on the advice of his physician.” Once again, the program was at a crossroads.
The End of an Era, The Start of a Legacy
George Smith, a former UC football star and freshman basketball coach, took over the program immediately following Weithe’s resignation. Schmidlapp was in the process of being phased out by that point, with the Bearcats playing the majority of their home games at the Cincinnati Gardens, with only the occasional contest being held on campus. The final game in the gymnasium was the opener of the 1953–54 season. Basketball wouldn’t return to UC’s campus for another year when Armory Fieldhouse opened.
“Schmidlapp became the women’s gym,” says Bearcats! co-author Greg Hand. “The women had used a gymnasium in Beecher Hall.” It wasn’t until this point that the building actually received the “Schmidlapp” name. “Funding came from the Schmidlapp trust,” says Hand. “[Jacob] Schmidlapp’s wife had died and he raised their daughter alone for some years. On a trip to Europe just before her debut in society, she was killed in an automobile accident. He set up the fund to help young women.” Prior to then, the gymnasium was unnamed, but the 2014–15 UC Men’s Basketball Media Guide refers to the building as Schmidlapp retroactively.
Smith would bring forward Jack Twyman to the varsity squad, where he became an All-American before leaving Clifton for an NBA career in which he was a six-time All Star. Smith also lured a high school kid from Indiana named Oscar Robertson to Cincinnati. “The Big O” was a three-time consensus first team All-American, number one overall draft pick by the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals, and — to this day — arguably the greatest player in the history of college basketball. Twyman and Robertson have since been enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame, and both of their numbers are currently hanging from the south wall of Fifth Third Arena.
Following two consecutive trips to the Final Four and Robertson’s graduation, Smith left UC, giving way to Ed Jucker, who promptly won back-to-back National Championships in his first two seasons in Clifton.
What had started in the dilapidated basement gymnasium of Old McMicken Hall had grown into a national powerhouse and Sports Illustrated cover darling. The Bearcats were dominating everyone they faced, a sight familiar to those who once watched the Red & Black play in the cramped and chaotic confines of Schmidlapp.
Following a January 1947 home loss to Louisville, the Bearcats won the final 26 games they played at Schmidlapp Gymnasium, leaving the arena with five consecutive seasons without a home loss. From January 1947 to December 1953, the Bearcats were untouchable in Clifton. They terrorized opponents with an average margin of victory of nearly 34 points per game during the streak.
The National Championship trophies are currently housed in glass cases in the Richard E. Lindner Center, but the real origin of the Bearcats’ dominance can be traced back to tiny Schmidlapp Gymnasium.