Yes, of course it is.
And no, of course it’s not.
Can a college sports matchup be a rivalry when one school hasn’t beaten the other in football since 1897 – 117 years ago – or in basketball since 1962? Of course not.
But can a sports matchup between in-state schools, which apparently share a fair bit of vitriol between certain actors, be one? Of course it can.
That’s the unique and in some ways unsettled climate facing Ohio State and Cincinnati as they get ready to meet Saturday night in Ohio Stadium. For two schools that haven’t played each other very often – and that’s part of the issue – there’s a lot of athletics, geographical and cultural conflict at play.
How that will manifest itself when the powerful Buckeyes and resurgent Bearcats face off remains to be seen, but let there be no doubt – there is a rivalry between Ohio State and Cincinnati, the capital city and Queen City, that will be at play on Saturday.
Unless there’s not.
The Case For A Rivalry
This Saturday’s meeting between the Buckeyes and Bearcats will be just the seventh in either football or basketball since that 1962 men’s basketball national championship game that UC won, its second consecutive title-game victory over Ohio State.
And then that was that. It’s long been figured that Ohio State has refused to play Cincinnati, something head coach Mick Cronin maintains but OSU doesn’t publicly acknowledge, though the Buckeye basketball team isn’t exactly noted for its willingness to play in-state foes.
The last meeting between the squads came in the 2012 Sweet 16, a victory for OSU on the way to the Final Four, and before that the teams broke the longtime series freeze in the 2005 Wooden Tradition, a lopsided win for OSU in which conspiracy theorists say the Buckeyes only played the Bearcats because they knew the team would be reeling from the loss of head coach Bob Huggins. In between was the Damon Flint recruiting saga, one that ended with the prized player at UC after his initial pledge to OSU was overturned thanks to NCAA violations.
Then there was OSU’s longtime decision not to play in-state schools in the gridiron, one that lasted nearly six decades before the school began playing Buckeye State squads in the late 1990s. UC returned to the schedule and took losses in 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2006.
There was nothing close to ducking UC in the meantime, as the Bearcats won more than six games just once from 1977-96, with noted Bearcat player Urban Meyer acknowledging the school simply wasn’t very good at football when he played there in the mid-1980s. But there has continued to be at least bad blood between the fanbases in some ways, from UC’s 2009 T-shirts with the message “Buckeye State” with the UC highlighted to the fan who made a not-so-veiled reference on the Ohio Stadium field this past winter.
So what gives? Chris Phillips, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati, has his guesses. Originally a native of Illinois, Phillips lived in Cleveland before taking a job in 1999 at UC. His current university is now the second largest in the state of Ohio with nearly 44,000 students, trailing only OSU’s more than 57,000 students.
But Ohio State is still the biggest and is located in the state capital, where much of the funding for state universities is allocated. Despite the fact the University of Cincinnati was founded more than 50 years before Ohio State, it has been passed athletically and emotionally as the state’s defining university.
“Not having been raised in Ohio, I have no dog in this fight other than what I’ve learned since I’ve been here,” Phillips told BSB. “At least in my 15 years as a faculty member here, I think there are a lot of folks at UC that feel in many ways – rightly and wrongly – that we’re kind of the red-headed stepchild in the state to Ohio State.”
Then there are the cultural differences between the two cities. Having grown up in Cleveland, I know a huge difference separates the 150 miles of Interstate 71 between the Forest City and the capital city. That difference gets even stronger when traveling the 110 miles from Columbus to Cincinnati.
To many in the state of Ohio, there’s a sense that Cincinnati – secluded by hills to the north, the Ohio River and Kentucky to the south and Indiana to the west, and in a different geographical classification than the rest of the state – is a different place from the rest of Ohio.
As both OSU assistant coach Kerry Coombs and Phillips pointed out, in Cincinnati, when someone asks where you went to school, they mean high school, not college, and prep rivalry games bring in tens of thousands of fans. In Cincinnati, your preference of chili is a point of debate. In Cincinnati, summer means Reds baseball, from the Opening Day Findlay Market Parade through the final out of the season called by Marty Brennaman.
“People who are born and raised in Cincinnati don’t very often leave,” Coombs told BSB. “Westsiders marry westsiders, eastsiders marry eastsiders. That’s kind of the way it works in Cincinnati. People are proud of their town, as am I, and they love it.”
Part of that insular culture exists because of geography and part because of history. A popular Ohio River port, Cincinnati had more than 200,000 residents by 1870, while Columbus didn’t reach six digits until the 1900 census. Columbus has continued a steady growth that had it nearing 800,000 residents in the 2010 census, while Cincinnati peaked in the 1950s and ’60s near 500,000 and is now down to about 300,000 in the last count.
While the areas around the Queen City continue to thrive, there’s in many ways a disconnect between it and the rest of the state, in particular Columbus.
“Cincinnatians kind of ignore Columbus,” said Phillips, a Civil War scholar who can trace seeds of discontent between the cities to state politics after the conflict. “They feel that the city is kind of a late comer, and other than the fact that it’s the state capital and they have the state university there, they feel that there’s nothing culturally or otherwise to waste a lot of time thinking about.”
Or as Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daughtery wrote before the 2012 basketball game, “It’s not resentment, if you really don’t care. It’s like getting worked up over socket wrenches or peas n’ carrots.”
The Case For None
So if the two cities are so ambivalent toward one another, there’s no rivalry, right?
And if there are actually people in Cincinnati who love their Buckeyes, what’s there to argue about?
Coombs was one of those people. He and his wife, Holly, grew up in Colerain and never really left, as Coombs was the head coach at his prep alma mater for 15 years. He would have been happy coaching the Cardinals for another 15, but a job at UC opened up, so he took that. And he was planning to stay there, too, not bothering to go to Notre Dame with Brian Kelly.
So when his phone rang and the new coach of the Buckeyes, Meyer, was on the line in early 2012, he was prepared to say no as well, content to live inside Interstate 275 for the rest of time.
"Cincinnati is our home – our whole family was there, which is not uncommon in Cincinnati,” Coombs said. “When Urban called, I called my wife and I said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know I got this phone call today and before I tell him no I just wanted you to know that,’ and she said, ‘Don’t you tell him no.’
“I said, ‘Is that right?’ and she said, ‘Well, first of all, it’s Ohio State and we grew up with Woody Hayes and all of that stuff, and secondly, it’s Urban Meyer. Let’s go do this. We can make it work. It’s only an hour and a half away.’ ”
The retelling of that story brings to mind two observations. One, Coombs had no plans to ever leave his home neighborhood, a Cincinnati trait if there ever was one. And two, the Ohio State brand meant a lot to Coombs even though he had never coached or played for the Buckeyes.
And to hear Coombs tell it, he’s not alone.
“I never felt living in Cincinnati – I was an Ohio State fan, and I never felt there was any rivalry,” he said. “I think most of the people who live in Cincinnati are Ohio State fans, but they are also Cincinnati fans. That’s the way it ought to be.”
Obviously, there are a fair number of Buckeyes to have come from the Cincinnati area. Some of my best friends from my days as a student at Ohio State are from southwest Ohio, and recruits like Adolphus Washington, Jalin Marshall and Sam Hubbard show that there’s no shortage of players willing to make the trip up I-71 and spend their college days in scarlet and gray.
The head honcho knows a fair bit about Cincinnati, too. Meyer grew up with family in Cincinnati, attended UC and then started his coaching career at St. Xavier High School, and he’s a fan of the Queen City, so much so that when the Buckeyes’ spring game was moved to Cincy last year, he made sure his team was given proper treatment at some of the area’s most noted culinary establishments.
“I love it down there,” Meyer said. “I think Cincinnati is a great town. I’m not sure where that – I’m sure you guys have heard that, too, that it’s not really an Ohio State town.”
When some writers discussed the subject with the head coach this summer at the Big Ten’s annual media days, Meyer seemed legitimately curious about the subject.
“I heard that last year when we played our spring game down there, that there was like an anti-Ohio State feeling,” Meyer said. “In my opinion, Cincinnati is a big part of who we are and what we do. I’m not sure where that (talk of dislike) came from. We should play each other.”
On Saturday, they will for the fifth time in the last 16 years. There’s no movement afoot to pit the two programs on the gridiron more often, as the next game between the two is scheduled for 2019, no one is clamoring for something like the Cy-Hawk Series or the like between the state’s two biggest institutions.
And that’s fine. Rivalry or not, two teams representing different parts of the greatest state in the union will play, and that’s all that matters.
“They are the two major universities in the state,” Coombs said. “That is real, and that’s OK. We’re going to play a ballgame, and it should be exciting and it should be intense and that kind of stuff. I think that’s the neat part about it.”