Berry: What opening Big 12 play against Oklahoma means in Cincinnati

Berry: What opening Big 12 play against Oklahoma means in Cincinnati

The Sooners and Longhorns are headed to the Southeastern Conference next summer. This was Cincinnati’s one and only shot at either OU or Texas. The Bearcats drew the Sooners, and in the opener no less, and venerable Nippert Stadium, which has become a snakepit in recent years, figures to be electrifying Saturday.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 22, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 22, 2023, 6:00am CDT

CINCINNATI — OU-Cincinnati on Saturday in historic Nippert Stadium is a hot ticket.

Not the hottest in the Queen City for 2023. Taylor Swift came through town June 30/July 1.

But when the 2023 Big 12 football schedule was released back in January, UC fans and administrators scoured the combination of dates and opponents.

Kansas was coming to Nippert Stadium. Old American Conference foe Central Florida. Baylor and Iowa State, too.

And there it was. Sept, 23, the inaugural Big 12 game for the Bearcats.

Oklahoma.

“It was the perfect opener for us,” said UC athletic director John Cunningham.

The Sooners and Longhorns are headed to the Southeastern Conference next summer. This was Cincinnati’s one and only shot at either OU or Texas.

The Bearcats drew the Sooners, and in the opener no less, and venerable Nippert Stadium, which has become a snakepit in recent years, figures to be electrifying Saturday.

“To catch one of those teams, Texas or Oklahoma, before they left the conference, was really important,” Cunningham said. “To get that game at home, to open it up, it means a lot to our fans.

“It’s obviously the hottest ticket in town. Maybe not quite what Taylor Swift was … but it’s pretty darn close.”

Of course, Nippert Stadium’s smallish capacity of 38,088 creates ticket demand. But Cincinnati is an automatic sellout in this golden age of Bearcat football (UC made the 2021 College Football Playoff), and ascension into the Big 12 has the fans juiced for a new era.

And just so you know, the Los Angeles Rams play the Bengals at Paycor Stadium downtown on Monday night. Tickets remain available.

“It feels like the Bearcats have been punching above their weight class for years,” said UC fan Mike Galati, who operates Republic of Cincinnati, a noted Bearcat tailgate. “It’s validation. We finally made it.”

Cincinnati football had toiled in the Missouri Valley, the independent ranks and Conference USA before joining the Big East in 2005. But Big East football disintegrated after the 2012 season, and UC went looking for a new conference home.

The Big East in which Cincinnati competed was missing Miami and Virginia Tech and Syracuse, all having fled to the Atlantic Coast Conference. So Cincinnati’s Big East of West Virginia, Louisville and Pittsburgh wasn’t too different from the American Conference of Brigham Young, Houston, Central Florida, Memphis and Southern Methodist.

But now the likes of Kansas State and Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Christian, Utah and Colorado, will be invading Nippert Stadium regularly.

And the Sooners are here, too, for this season only.

“We wanted this to happen years ago, and we thought it was going to,” Galati said. “It’s finally here.”

Nippert, which was completed in 1924, on the grounds of where Cincinnati has been playing football since 2001, has become a hip place. Described by some as the Wrigley Field of college football, it sits crammed between other campus structures – the student union is maybe 75 feet from the Nippert concourse – and provides an urban setting unlike anything else in the Big 12 or maybe anywhere in college football.

“It’s that combination of old and new, that we’ve really done a nice job pulling together,” Cunningham. “It’s just this unique setup that we have.”

Student involvement is a major element of Bearcat games. UC’s enrollment has surpassed 50,000, and the students are a major force at Nippert.

“The students are super excited to get into the Big 12,” said UC student body president Taylor Morgan. “This year is the culmination of the student excitement on campus.”

When ESPN’s College GameDay came to UC in November 2021, students lined up between 3-4 a.m. to get prime viewing locations. Morgan expects the same thing Saturday, with Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff Show going live from Bearcats Commons near the stadium. 

This is what Cincinnati sought with Big 12 inclusion. A higher profile. A bigger stage.

“I think it’s a great way to kick off the Big 12,” Cunningham said. “Throw in Fox and Big Noon on top of that, just one of those moments where you get to highlight your university and be on that national stage.

“I expect that we’re going to perform well in terms of the atmosphere. It’s going to be 40,000 strong, it’s going to be loud as heck. You really feel that the fans are on top of you.”

Of course, the matchup is not as grand as it could have been. Cincinnati was a 31-24, overtime loser to Miami-Ohio last Saturday. That upset kept the Bearcats from being 3-0 and potentially ranked in the top 25.

“Not that last week’s game necessarily took some wind out of our sails, but people are still down in the dumps,” Galati said.

But never fear, “the atmosphere will be there,” Galati said. “We hope the team is ready for it. Historically, they do seem to feed off the energy in that stadium.

It’s going to be awesome.”

Before Miami-Ohio last week, UC had won 33 of its previous 34 home games.

The Bearcats got lucky with the Sooners. But the Sooners got lucky with the Bearcats. OU has four Big 12 road games. But only two of those trips — Kansas and OSU — are to legacy Big 12 schools. The Sooners also play at Brigham Young. Cincinnati and BYU hold no grudges against OU scooting off to the SEC; the Sooners’ departure paved the way for the Bearcats and Cougars to get into the Big 12.

The vitriol in Cincinnati and Provo should be minimal. OU’s appearance will be more celebratory than anything.

“It’s finally here,” Galati said. “I think people are thrilled to play teams that we’ve heard of, fan bases that care.

“Of course, Oklahoma and Texas, our exposure to you guys will be pretty short-lived, but there would be nothing better than to get one win out of Oklahoma. Nice feather in the cap.”

Of course, just being in the Big 12, just hosting the Sooners, is a feather in the cap after Cincinnati’s decades-long sojourn to premium-conference stability.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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