Bearcats Give It The Old College Try

UC’s pursuit of major-conference athletics is banking on a proven formula: Follow the money.
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Illustration by Matt Chase

You can understand why Mick Cronin boarded that private jet last March—why he flew to Las Vegas and listened to UNLV’s multimillion-dollar pitch to become the Runnin’ Rebels next head basketball coach.

The offer included a fat raise, a freshly renovated arena, and above all, the feeling that men’s hoops would be the big man on campus. That last part hasn’t been true at UC for a while now, where, in the eyes of the administrators and accountants at least, football has emerged as priority one. This elevation might seem bizarre to any fan who knows the history of football and basketball in Clifton. (A fan like, say, Mick Cronin, a Cincy native and UC alum.) But UC’s focus on football actually makes sense—at least as much as anything makes sense in the sordid, money-crazed world of modern college sports and the major conferences that rule them.

Bearcat basketball boasts a wonderful and deep tradition: Oscar Robertson’s all-around excellence, Bob Huggins’s ill-fitting windbreakers, six Final Fours, and two national titles. Under a decade of Cronin, the success has mostly continued, including six straight March Madness appearances. Each winter, locals are reminded of the Bearcats’ relevance during the Crosstown Shootout—a series UC still leads comfortably over Xavier, 49–34.

Compare that to football’s résumé. On the gridiron, UC has been so consistently uninspiring that campus forces have tried to abolish the team—twice. (In the 1970s, students led the charge; in the 1990s, it was professors.) More recently, the school has developed a reputation for propelling promising young coaches to bigger and better schools, a trend it broke only by hiring a competent retread in 58-year-old Tommy Tuberville in late 2012. Looking for Bearcat football’s modern high point? That would be allowing Tim Tebow to throw for nearly 500 yards in the 2010 Sugar Bowl.

Yet lately, it’s football that’s been basking in the university’s financial glow. Cronin has begged for upgrades to Fifth Third Arena, only to see those renovations pushed back to fall 2018. By that point, the football squad will be playing its fourth season in an updated Nippert Stadium, which was recently freshened up to the tune of $85 million. They’ll have passed even more time inside the inflatable bubble that covers their practice field. Price tag: $15 million.

That bubble isn’t a bad metaphor for UC football, either, which can still seem like it’s being pumped up more by money, warm air, and hope than by any on-field breakthrough—even if it doesn’t change the fact that prioritizing football is the smart decision.

The Department of Education tracks athletic budgets for hundreds of universities. These numbers aren’t perfect, since schools can classify different revenue streams in different ways, but it’s the best we have. In 2014, the 11 men’s basketball teams in UC’s American Athletic Conference earned an average of $5.6 million in revenue, including $7.6 million for UC. That same year, the AAC’s 11 football teams earned an average of $13.5 million, including $13.8 million for UC. Again, these numbers can be squishy, especially since UC also subsidized its athletic program with $25.6 million from student fees and the general fund that year. (Can’t beat creative bookkeeping!) But the larger trend is clear: Most years, Bearcat football brings in roughly twice as much as Bearcat basketball.

Football also represents UC’s best chance to jump to a so-called Power 5 conference, where the pigskin generates even more revenue and buzz. Take the Big 12, which UC has been flirting with for years. In 2014, that conference’s men’s basketball teams averaged $10.7 million in revenue, while its football teams—including storied programs like Oklahoma and Texas—averaged more than four times that: $47.6 million.

So you can see why UC desperately wants to remain at least semi-competitive in football, even at the risk of neglecting its basketball tradition. If the school can crash the Big 12—and as of press time, it’s reportedly on the short list for a potential conference expansion—then the school would eventually enjoy a revenue boost of $20 to $30 million per year. That’s enough cash to stop raiding the general fund, if there’s any justice. (Though in college sports, there rarely is.) It’s also enough to get Mick Cronin the basketball upgrades he needs.

Cronin ultimately rejected UNLV, but he still wants to take his Bearcat basketball program to a realm of better competition, nicer team travel, and chartered jets for recruiting. And he knows it will take football to get him there.

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